Wilfred Owen: Oh! World You are Making for Me, Sassoon!; Kipling and Carstairs on the Chaos of Bourlon Wood

There is a long letter from Wilfred Owen to Siegfried Sassoon to get to, today, but comradeship rightly comes after battle.

First, then, two accounts of one of the most desperate days at Cambrai. We enter Bourlon Wood with Carroll Carstairs and the 3rd Grenadier Guards. I know almost nothing of Carstairs, but his writing is consistently interesting. He indulges a bit in the blasé roué routine, but only so far: when he comes to the worse of experience he slows down and concentrates, carefully reconstructing the sights and sounds of battle. But he doesn’t become merely a sort of responsible, roving eye or recording camera, either: Carstairs doesn’t spare himself, analyzing his own feelings even in the most trying circumstances.

It was about four in the morning when the Commanding Officer himself woke me. The candles, stuck in bottles on the table, burned as straight as on any altar. Each step up the twenty-two of the dugout was a conscious movement. Now we were at the entrance. The night was still, breathless. It had been raining. The air on our faces
left a moisture. The ground was soggy and the going difficult. The mud stuck to our boots until we were walking on huge pads.

We came upon No. 1 Company—mutes and shadows and something more than men. The Commanding Officer went down a dugout to have a last word with “Mary” Bowes-Lyon while I remained and joked with the two subalterns. How is it one can jest at such a time? It’s a question of tuning up. Laughter is the loophole through
which joy enters the soul. We were slipping along again. An interminable walk to go a few yards. But we had missed No. 2 Company and were out in No Man’s Land heading for the enemy. We made for the road which divided the Battalion. By the time we had reached Nos. 3 and 4 Companies they were forming up. Sinister shadows filling the gloom, as silent as the night itself, only the immense discipline of the Brigade of Guards kept one from remembering they were men cold and wet and dulled with fear…

At 6.20 our barrage came down and while I thought of the Battalion as a unit, five hundred men had begun their perilous progress towards the enemy trenches.

Carstairs is left in support: he sees other units attacking, a light barrage dropping, and then wounded men coming back. With the battle raging ahead, he moves up with the battalion HQ and reserves.

We had reached the foot of the village without a casualty. I was standing on ground newly won. To my left and right stretched deserted enemy entrenchments.

Near me lay two wounded Grenadiers. One was in a ditch full of water. They were remarkably quiet. I felt I should get them back somehow, but there were no stretcher bearers about.

Out of the house next to which I was standing appeared three Germans. They were holding up their hands. One had his foot in a bandage and was being helped along by the others. They looked frightened and miserable. While they are chattering in German, a wounded Grenadier turned up, quite off his head.

“That’s all right, sir,” he addressed me. “I’ll kill them.”

“I wouldn’t do that,” I remonstrated.

“Oh, that’s quite all right. You just leave them to me.” He threatened them with his rifle. The wounded German started to whimper and shuffled off.

The Grenadier followed, herding his little party together. He used his rifle like a shepherd’s staff. Could he have been a shepherd in civilian life? They disappeared in the direction of an out-house. Whatever happened to them? They were not heading strictly for the British lines.

And that’s all we learn.

At least this is a true war story: there may be honor and mercy, or, more likely it seems, madness and atrocity. But Carstairs has his own task and his own peril to worry about, and must move on… and so must we.

Another small party of prisoners appeared with a wounded Grenadier as escort. He was dazed and shaking with fright.

“Take a door off this house and have these prisoners carry back this wounded man.” But he did not understand.
The prisoners stood nervously about wishing to be gone. I showed them what I wanted done and they complied with alacrity.

Soon they were off, carrying the wounded Grenadier. It must have been a heavy load. I could not help fearing they would drop him half way in their eagerness to get out of danger. But if they had any thought of doing so it was intercepted by a German shell which burst in their midst after they had gone two hundred yards.

More prisoners turning up, removed another door from a house, on which they placed the man lying in the ditch of water.

Suddenly a large group of Germans approached. Their leader was a big man and the rest followed with a martial tread that contrasted oddly with their upraised hands and white handkerchiefs, energetically waved by some. One or two dodged into houses, but the rest marched on until they had reached us. The big man addressed me and I felt like a traffic policeman as I pointed to the British lines and watched them hurry off. Messages arrived from Nos. 3 and 4 Companies. They had captured their objectives, they were held up by heavy German machine-gun fire, they had suffered considerably and were in need of reinforcements. No word from either Nos. 1 or 2 Companies—a bad sign.

The Commanding Officer turned up. I saluted as though on parade.

He looked anxious. “We must go up and see what is happening.”

Together we proceeded up the main street of Fontaine-Notre-Dame, down which machine-gun bullets were pouring with the volume of water from a fire-hose. We hugged the houses to minimize the danger of being hit.

We reached the cross-roads and I marvelled that a man could get so far and remain alive. We were in the van of the battle. It seemed a miracle had happened to me.

Knollys greeted us. His Company Commander had been wounded. He was holding his position with about forty men and one machine-gun. It was almost all that was left of the Battalion. Nos. 1 and 2 Companies had  disappeared into the blue. They had been, as a matter of fact, wiped out. All officers (including both Company Commanders killed) both Sergeant-Majors, and all Sergeants casualties, and two-thirds of the men. Knollys was not certain but he thought No. 4 Company was somewhere up on the left.

Joining one of his friends in the aftermath of the fight, Carstairs continues to describe the intense strangeness of the persistence of human interactions in the midst of deadly battle.

Our consultation was interrupted by the appearance of a tank. It stopped, and out of it an officer descended.

“Do you want me any more?”

“No.” I felt as though I were dismissing a taxi.

He climbed back into the tank and down the street it waddled away.

We occupied a difficult position. The road to our rear joined with the left flank of No. 3 Company. We stood at the junction of the two other roads, one of which led to the station and the other in the direction of Bourlon Wood. The 1st Coldstream were somewhere on our left. A wide gap divided us, a gap impossible to bridge.

Suddenly to our right we saw the enemy attacking down the main road that led to the centre of No. 3 Company’s position. We were well placed to enfilade, which we did with a will. We watched the Germans being beaten back, holding up their arms before their faces as though warding off blows from sticks and stones.

With that attack driven back we thought of No. 3 Company as secure. The men were posted to overlook the roads. We had no thought of our rear. I sent a runner with a message giving our position…

But it soon becomes clear that they are, in fact, in touch with no other British unit–No 3. Company has been driven back by the same attack which his men have just fired on.

Our situation was awkward, to say the least. Sixty men with both flanks in the air cannot hold a village against a strong and inevitable counter-attack.

I caught sight of my face in a mirror. It was pink and normal. I had not taken in the seriousness of our position. I was still in a kind of a dream. A mental smokescreen obscured my vision.

Even the sergeant’s astonishing announcement reached me dimly, “Germans are coming up be’ind!” By no selective reasoning did I find myself, with revolver drawn, behind the wall, while the others stood in the entrance of the yard.

Carstairs’ memories move into the present tense, now:

And to be suddenly shooting at grey uniformed Germans was accompanied by no thrill. How big they were! Was it because he was aiming straight at my head that this German appeared so big? The motion of his rifle coming up to his shoulder increased his stature. My revolver lost power to hurt, for after I had fired the Germans remained in the same position. And yet they were so near it would have seemed impossible to have missed them. (A week before I had hit an envelope at twenty paces.) It did not seem as though I was missing but rather as though my bullets, turning into pellets, were bounding harmlessly off. Nor did the German’s rifle seem to function. There was no smoke, no flash, and I heard no bullet whistle uncomfortably close to my head. The whole thing took on the unreality of a “movie” until one of the Germans dropped. It seemed the signal for which his fellows had been waiting, for with one accord they spun round and ran away. I have never seen people run so fast. I can see
again that man as he turned the corner, the play of his big grey legs from hip to knee. He is gone.

I gazed at Carrington and he at me. It was from our rear that we had been attacked. Where is No. 3 Company?

It was the sergeant who showed presence of mind.

“We must follow.”

Someone shouted. “Collect the rest of the men.”

We broke into a run; following in the wake of the Germans. We passed the wounded German. He had raised himself on his elbow and, stretching out a hand, said something. A plea for mercy, for help? The bullet had hit the bone below the eye, leaving a bloody gash.

We reached the bend in the road. This had been the left of No. 3 Company’s position. Only a dead Grenadier remained. Did we expect to meet the enemy as we stopped stock-still at the corner? I expected nothing. I had ceased to think. It was as though our legs had outstripped thought. Time itself had stopped. The surprise attack, the brief duel, the pursuit, following in swift succession seemed all to belong to the same moment. Only now was time passing. An eternity, while one stood irresolute, wondering what to do.

“We must cut in be’ind these ’ouses, otherwise we’re lost.” It was the sergeant again who spoke.

The thirty survivors of the company escape by climbing through the back gardens of the village of Fontaine. But they do make it back to the rest of the battalion, and Carstairs once again takes time to reflect–once again we are in the past tense.

Experience, at first stimulating, ends by draining the system. Through the high storm of enemy shelling I passed, with any capacity for registering further emotion at last microscopically diminished. I felt no fear because I could feel nothing more. Slithering down the steep and muddy flight of stairs into the dim interior of Battalion  Headquarters’ dugout was a purely mechanical performance, and its shadowy occupants unreal. Its gloom and earthen smell reminded my subconscious self of former rest and security, which acted soporifically upon me and, at the end of my narrative, I fell forward on to the table into a sleep more profound and dreamless than any I had ever known.

I woke into a strange world. The events of the preceding hours rushed kaleidoscopically upon me, leaving me to fit myself, like a piece in a picture puzzle, into my immediate surroundings.

The Battalion was soon to move. Billy was sitting with his head in his hands saying, “Oh, my head! Oh, my head!”
In the midst of the most acute anxiety, disappointment and distress, the Commanding Officer had patience to repeat for the nth time, “Poor Billy!”

The Adjutant and the Padre returned from a final futile hunt for the bodies of “Nibs” and “Mary.” “Missing, believed killed” they will remain until the end of time, with the rest of a generation missing.

A miserable and stricken little family, the survivors of the 3rd Battalion left the “line.”[1]

 

Once again, for the sake of stylistic comparison, we can match the memoir (or personal history) of one Guards’ Regiment officer with the official historian of another.

They led off at 6.20 behind their own barrage, in two waves… Everything was ready for them, and machine-guns opened on well-chosen and converging ranges. Almost at the outset they met a line of enemy posts held in strength, where many of the occupants had chosen to shelter themselves at the bottom of the trenches under oil- sheets, a protection hampering them equally in their efforts to fight or to surrender. Here there was some quick killing and a despatch of prisoners to the rear; but the Wood offered many chances of escape, and as our guards were necessarily few, for every rifle was needed, a number broke away and returned…

[T]he Battalion took half-a-dozen machine-guns and lost more men at each blind step… A man once down in the coppice, or bogged in a wood-pool, was as good as lost, and the in-and-out work through the trees and stumpage broke up the formations…

Nevertheless, the 2nd Irish Guards carry the wood–for a little while. The entire Battalion’s experience sounds much like that of Carstairs:

Not long after this, they tried to dig in among the wet tree-roots, just beyond the Wood’s north edge. It seemed to them that the enemy had fallen back to the railway-line which skirted it, as well as to the north of La Fontaine village. Officially, the objective was reached, but our attacking strength had been used up, and there were no reserves. A barrage of big stuff, supplemented by field-guns, was steadily thrashing out the centre and north of the Wood, and, somewhere to the rear of the Battalion, a nest of machine-guns broke out viciously and unexpectedly. Then the whole fabric of the fight appeared to crumble, as, through one or other of the many gaps between the Battalions, the enemy thrust in, and the 2nd Irish Guards, hanging on to their thin front line, realised him suddenly at their backs. What remained of them split up into little fighting groups; sometimes taking prisoners, sometimes themselves being taken and again breaking away from their captors, dodging, turning, and ducking in dripping coppices and over the slippery soil, while the shells impartially smote both parties…

It looked like complete and unqualified disaster. But men say that the very blindness of the ground hid this fact to a certain extent both from us and the enemy, and the multiplied clamours in the Wood supplied an additional blindage. As one man said: ‘If Jerry had only shut off his dam’ guns and listened he’d ha’ heard we was knocked out; but he kept on hammer-hammering an’ rushin’ his parties back and forth the Wood, and so, ye see, them that could of us, slipped back quiet in the height of the noise.’ Another observer compared it to the chopping of many foxes in cover — not pleasant, but diversified by some hideously comic incidents. All agreed that it was defeat for the Guards — the first complete one they had sustained; but the admitted fact that they had been turned on at a few hours’ notice to achieve the impossible, did not spoil their tempers…

One of the handful of company officers not to become a casualty, today, in Bourlon Wood, was R.E. Sassoon, Siegfried‘s second cousin, who had been held back as a reserve with battalion headquarters.

Cambrai may have given hope and encouragement in England, but those who had been through it remained Sadducees. There were those who said that that hour was the psychological one to have gone on and taken advantage of the moral effect of breaking the Hindenburg Line, but this theory was put forward after the event; and a total of eleven thousand prisoners and a hundred and forty-five German guns for three weeks’ fighting seems small foundation for such large hopes. Every one on the field seems to have been agreed as to the futility of trying to work with, and making arrangements for the keep of, masses of cavalry on the chance that these might break through and overrun the enemy in the background.[2]

 

True enough… but we were going to use Captain Sassoon as a segue to a letter from his second cousin’s friend, admirer, and poetic master-surpassing-pupil. Wilfred Owen, has settled into life as a military hotel manager of sorts, but this is only tolerable because of his confidence that his intellectual life is not just elsewhere but flourishing… there.

27 November 1917 Scarborough

I sit alone at last, and therefore with you, my dear Siegfried. For which name, as much as for anything in any envelope of your sealing, I give thanks and rejoice.

The 5th have taken over a big Hotel, of which I am Major Domo…

I had a Third Heaven of a time in London, arid should have got into a Fourth or Fifth if I had not missed you on Wednesday. Were you there for a ‘Reading?’ I know nothing of it to this day.

He was. Should Sassoon have included Owen? No–it was Ross’s gig, not Sassoon’s, and he was none too pleased to be there himself. Besides, Owen is not as established as Nichols, and arranging such things by letter and telegraph takes a bit more forethought than would be required nowadays… but Owen might also have been wrong for such things because he was not socially correct. He was neither low enough in the social order to be a curiosity nor high enough to be acceptable: he had been to neither Public School nor University, and Sassoon is painfully (read that adverb however you will) aware of Owen’s declassé accent.

After London, I went to Winchester to see my Cousin, whose fine Book cover with its enclosed pages I dare to send you herewith…

In Town, then, R.R. gave me a glorified morning at The Reform, & evening at Half Moon St.—When he had steered me to a lunch-table I found beside me an upstart rodent of a man, who looked astonished to find himself there. But dear Ross sang out with blessed distinctness ‘Mister Amnoldd Bennnettt’. So I stood up and shook hands.  Presently I became aware of a pair of bayonet-coloured eyes, threatening at me from over, as it were, a brown sandbag. ‘H. G. Wells!’ So I stood up and shook hands. I think these men noticed me because I stood up to them in two senses. Anyhow I got A.B. into a comer about you, as I will tell you someday. And H.G. talked to me exclusively for an hour. I was only ill at ease with him once, and that was when he tried to make me laugh with him at Bennett’s gaudy handkerchief.

If you have read through this rehashing of the non-momentous meetings with a roll of the eyes–that Owen is a bit too star struck!–it’s interesting to see what comes next. Even in this somewhat fawning letter to Sassoon, he is willing to, well, fawn, and only just after frankly wondering about Sassoon’s taste in his new friends…

What sport for my imagination is the idea of your Meeting with R. Nichols.—He is so self-concerned & vaniteux in his verse that I thought he must efface himself in a room: even as you who write so acid are so—unsoured; and me, who write so big, am so minuscule…

Oh! world you are making for me, Sassoon!

The only question is, which is the real gift: the criticism and the confidence, the poetic push, or, rather, the exciting entree into literary life?

Owen is quite amusing, actually, in his reading of Sassoon’s and Graves‘s work. There is something very charming about his light-spiritedness, even if he leans on it rather heavily. He presumes a bit too much on his intimacy with the sometimes-frosty Sassoon… but then he laughs at his own excessive glorying:

I think I liked reading his Letter to you more than yours to him, but for no better reasons than that I like the future better than the past, and hope you will learn the piccolo…

If these tetrameters aren’t enough to bring you to your senses. Mad Jack, what can my drivel effect to keep you from France?

Have you been very sat upon by this Board? Do tell me quick what your movements are.

I have studied and expanded every sentencience of your sole letter to me; until I can make no more out of it, and want some more, please…

Owen then–to his credit–at least passes on some of his cousin’s work, with apologetic notes on how to get through them most painlessly. But he also includes his own work, both the unpublished “A Vision of Whitechapel” and another poem, as strange as his mood:

My ‘Vision’ is the result of two hours’ leisure yesterday,—and getting up early this morning! If you have objections to make, would you return it? If not, pass it on to R.R.

I trust you’ll like the ‘Soldier’s Dream’ well enough to pass it on to the Nation or Cambridge?

Um…

I dreamed kind Jesus fouled the big-gun gears;
And caused a permanent stoppage in all bolts;
And buckled with a smile Mausers and Colts;
And rusted every bayonet with His tears.

And there were no more bombs, of ours or Theirs,
Not even an old flint-lock, not even a pikel.
But God was vexed, and gave all power to Michael;
And when I woke he’d seen to our repairs.

Sassoon will blush here–if not for the effusiveness, the nick-naming, and tje suddenly unreasonable-seeming hopes of publication, than for the plainness of one fact: Owen does not make a very good Sassoon. The punchy satirical style doesn’t work as well without the anger behind it… also, those are some awful rhymes.

No; Owen will realize, soon, that Sassoon’s attention and example have made him–Owen–a much better poet, and no mere fanboy. But he is that, also.

…There is no one here whose mind is Truth, or whose body Keats’s synonym for Truth.

I’ll mind my business. I’m a good worm.

Could you get me another portrait for my room here? I framed the one, and could not pack it.

But don’t make it an excuse for delaying a letter.

I hope you will read through this, twice.

I hope you read Graves’s Letter to S.S. twice a day, till war ends.

We have had some strong sunshine; and when it strikes anything blue I see you sitting by the bedside as on That Morning in September

I am Owen; and I am dying.
I am Wilfred; and I follow the Gleam.[3]

Never fear: this is not some sort of crazed or suicidal swerve at the end of the letter, but a quotation (read “Merlin” for both “Owen” and “Wilfred) from Tennyson’s “Merlin and The Gleam.” What a letter!

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Carstairs, A Generation Missing, 121-139.
  2. The Irish Guards in the Great War, II, 157-62.
  3. Collected Letters, 510-12.

Siegfried Sassoon’s Dubious Cure is Complete; The Guards Prepare to Enter Bourlon Wood

Today, a century back, is another one of those dramatic days in the literary history of the war–meaning that, even if you haven’t seen the movie (Regeneration, a.k.a Behind the Lines), it’s hard not to imagine the scene dramatically staged, with sonorous speechifying punctuated by clipped phrases. Siegfried Sassoon–decorated infantry officer, poet of protests, and previous-medical-board-cutter–comes before a Medical Board to assure them that he has not changed his mind, refuses to acknowledge that he has been ill, and nevertheless insists not just on resuming military obedience but on actively fighting–he has Rivers’s word that he will be passed fit for general service abroad, and not shunted off to a depot or desk job.

It went fine, by most accounts, and the drama dissipated. Sassoon left Craiglockhart in what must have been a mood of anticlimax–Rivers had already left, Owen was gone, and he was off to a dismal depot in Wales to see if the War Office would keep the bargain and send him back into danger.

It’s possible that Sassoon was frustrated, that he was unsettled and unhappy to be going to a place with many acquaintances who would not understand his protest, and no real friends. But I don’t see any good reason to follow his biographer Jean Moorcroft Wilson in assuming that he was deeply depressed. He has sent some melodramatic letters in recent days, surely–and he is annoyed by Robert Graves‘s infatuation with Nancy Nicholson (although whether he viewed this primarily as a “defection” from a homosexual brotherhood–rather than just a male friend traducing an all-male society–is doubtful). But to assume that he “no longer cared whether he was alive or dead” (or, later on the same page, that he was “not caring much whether he lived or died”) seems unnecessary. Sassoon is prone to wallowing, but he never really manifested severe depression. His “almost complete despair” is an emotional position, rather than a psychological state. Either that or it’s a passing mood, and there are no German grenadiers near by to take him up on a temporary recklessness…[1]

In any event, his strange claims and steady demeanor got him past the board, despite his insistence that the war was still wrong and that he hasn’t changed his mind. This is true in one sense, but untrue in a more important one: he can do nothing right, or feel nothing to be right, until he is back with the troops.

And after the second board meets, naturally, the book ends. Regeneration, that is: the last scene in the novel sees Rivers completing the paperwork that sends Sassoon back to duty.

 

And none too soon–or, rather, far too late for him to see any of the worst of the 1917 fighting. The last of this will fall, as it often does, to the Guards division. We are back, now, with the American Carroll Carstairs, only just returned from leave. He found his battalion, the 3rd Grenadier Guards, a few days ago, hurrying up to the front to support the Cambrai attack.

The ’buses came at last and at 5.30 a.m. we arrived and went into huts. What was going to happen? All day we remained apprehensively at Boulencourt. I was one of so many that a sense of individual danger was lost. Death would be pure accident. No bullet be intended for me. One’s mind dodged the issue. You did not think of it. It thought of you. That was it. It considered you bodily; pinning you to earth; running you down. For we were certain—I was certain—to go into battle. What was that silly line in a story? It made me think of a battle as something so romantic as to be harmless…

It was here that British troops had so recently overrun the impregnable Hindenburg line. The tracks of the tanks that had flattened some six aprons of barbed wire could be seen. In their wake the infantry had followed. All very neatly done. No artillery preparation. Few shell holes. Little bloodshed. Many prisoners. Just a nice clean battle…

We were billeted in a deep dugout. Twenty-four steps. Very safe. In the trench a tank had been stuck, its nose
perpendicular in the air—looking a clumsy, helpless thing…

The Germans were shelling Anneux. The next day we were to take over the line in front of Anneux and facing Fontaine. Cambrai looked ridiculously within reach. Bourlon Wood, half British and half German, presented an inscrutable appearance. It was too late. We should not be used now. Again I was to miss a battle. On the way
back the moon was setting in a sky of violet…

Another day passes, and the romantic is disappointed. But he will get his battle, and he manages to describes his contradictory spirits with both jauntiness and sensitivity, seriousness and verve:

The next day was windy. The clouds had a smudged look as though a dirty finger had rubbed their edges. Towards evening the wind died out like the end of a long sigh and the day was still. Without moon and stars the night was black and threatened rain.

I had met the Battalion with the guides, but the Commanding Officer was nowhere to be seen. I found “Billy” though, who was much excited. He told me what was up, but I could not take it in. His announcement affected me physically before I had mentally grasped it. I felt it like a shock, like a blow, turning me sick. The Battalion was to
attack the following morning. Once the words had been formulated and the brain had recorded and repeated them there occurred an emotional ebb, leaving the system drained. Gradually I rallied to the fact itself, inevitable. All this within the space of a few seconds. I had morally run away, fallen, picked myself up, while remaining steadfastly on one spot.[2]

 

Carstairs is a surprisingly excellent chronicler of subjective experience. Rudyard Kipling, writing as official chronicler of the Irish Guards, is up to something different. And yet it can’t be so different: he can set the scene from behind, with the traditional “General’s Eye View” of the proceedings, but he knows the need, after tactical summary, for eyewitness testimony, however parenthetical and in dialect, to bring us into the experience of the day:

The official idea of the Brigade’s work was that, while the 3rd Grenadiers were attacking La Fontaine, the 2nd Irish Guards should sweep through Bourlon Wood and consolidate on its northern edge…

They would advance under a creeping barrage, that jumped back a hundred yards every five minutes, and they would be assisted by fourteen tanks. Above all, they were to be quick because the enemy seemed to be strong and growing stronger, both in and behind the Wood. The Battallion spent the night of the 26th working its way up to the front line, through Flesquières where bombs were issued, two per man; then to La Justice by Graincourt; and thence, cross-country, by Companies through the dark to the Bapaume—Cambrai road, where they found the guides for their relief of the Scots Guards. Just as they reached the south edge of Bourlon Wood, the enemy put down a barrage which cost forty casualties. Next it was necessary for the C.O. (Alexander) to explain the details of the coming attack to his Company Commanders, who re-explained it to their N.C.O.’s, while the Companies dressed in attack-order, bombs were detonated, and shovels issued. (‘There was not any need to tell us we were for it. We knew that, and we knew we was to be quick. But that was all we did know — except we was to go dancin’ into that great Wood in the wet, beyond the duck-boards. The ground, ye’ll understand, had been used by them that had gone before us— used and messed about; and at the back, outside Bourlon, all Jerry’s guns was rangin’ on it. A dirty an’ a noisy business was Bourlon.’[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Siegfried Sassoon, I, 424-428.
  2. Carstairs, A Generation Missing, 119-22.
  3. The Irish Guards in the Great War, II, 156.

Robert Graves Makes Colorful Plans; High Quigley Gets His Blighty; Vera Brittain Learns the Meaning of Emergency

Around lunch-time, today, a century back, the Graves family’s worries were alleviated by a telegram announcing that Robert had spent the night at the Nicholsons’ home. Robert, twenty-two, is entranced by Nancy, all of eighteen, as is she with him. They are thinking of marriage, already, and of collaboration: she is a painter, and will illustrate his planned writings for children.

In Nancy, Robert had discovered a woman who shared his growing conviction that there was something better and more true in the myths and legends of childhood than in the terrible ‘reality’ of the adult world’: When Nancy showed Robert some of her paintings, which included illustrations to Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses, he found that ‘my child-sentiment and hers–she had a happy childhood to look back on–answered each other.

Graves spent the morning running errands, but he also dropped in on Edmund Gosse and then said an early good-bye to his family. Graves is bound for Scotland, but first he returned to Nancy, having dinner with the Nicholsons and then going with them to a revue, Graves’s first-ever experience of popular entertainment of this sort. He must have been in an excellent mood when he caught the night-train for Edinburgh, and another meeting with Siegfried Sassoon[1]

 

It’s been only two days since we heard from Hugh Quigley, portentously preparing for battle. He was right to worry about a wound–and lucky.

Le Treport, 12 October, 1917

I got that comfortable wound I mentioned in my last letter: some intuition must have told me what was going to happen. The pain is not too great, although the right leg is useless just now; the doctor says it will come in time. I am expecting to be home in two days…

Our division had the pleasing task of making a bold bid for Passchendaele: of course, the officers told us the usual tale…

But none of us knew where to go when the barrage began, whether half-right or half-left: a vague memory of following the shell-bursts as long as the smoke was black, and halting when it changed to white… I was knocked out before I left the first objective, a ghastly breast-work littered with German corpses. One sight almost sickened me before I went on: thinking the position of a helmet on a dead officer’s face rather curious, sunken down rather far on the nose, my platoon sergeant lifted it off, only to discover no upper half to the head. All above the nose had been blown to atoms, a mass of pulp, brain, bone and muscle.

After this horror, a concessive clause under absurd pressure:

Apart from that, the whole affair appeared rather good fun.

It’s a transition, in a letter, and we shouldn’t make too much of it… but this is the madness of war in one pivoting sentence. Quigley pursues the idea:

You know how excited one becomes in the midst of great danger. I forgot absolutely that shells were meant to kill and not to provide elaborate lighting effects, looked at the barrage, ours and the Germans’, as something provided for our entertainment–a mood of madness, if you like.

Well, yes, madness: he’s gotten there himself.

Next comes a detailed description of the assault, including a mad Highlander screaming at them as they move deliberately behind the walking barrage, and a comrade stopping to loot a German corpse. It is far more horrible than his breezy letter made it seem, but his claim about the uselessness of the rifle–at this stage, at least–is borne out.

We got the first objective easily, and I was leaning against the side of a shell hole, resting along with others, when an aeroplane swooped down and treated us to a shower of bullets. None of them hit. I never enjoyed anything so much in my life–flames, smoke, lights, SOS’s, drumming of guns, and swishing of bullets, appeared stage-properties to set off a great scene. From the pictorial point of view nothing could be finer or more majestic; it had a unity of colour and composition all its own, the most delicate shades of green and grey and brown fused wonderfully in the opening light of morning. When the barrage lifted and the distant ridge gleamed dark against the horizon, tree-stumps, pill-boxes, shell-holes, mine-craters, trenches, shone but faintly, fragmentary in the distant smoke. Dotted here and there, in their ghostly helmets and uniforms, and the enemy were hurrying off or coming down in batches to find their own way to the cages…

Then, going across a machine-gun barrage, I got wounded. At first I did not know where, the pain was all over, and then the gushing blood told me.

Quigley follows a German prisoner back to a dressing-station, and is then carried back over the rear areas of the torn battlefield:

…a wilderness of foul holes littered with dead men disinterred in the barrage. One sight I remember very vividly: a white-faced German prisoner tending a whiter “Cameron” who had been struck in the stomach. In spite of the fierce shelling he did not leave him, but stayed by him as long as I could see. I confess my first feeling of deadly fear arose when on the stretcher. The first excitement was wearing off and my teeth were chattering with cold.

There was a German shrapnel barrage to get through, too, which killed more than a few of the wounded and stretcher-bearers. Wounded, but carried through this secondary maelstrom safely, Quigley praises the Medical Corps very highly:

…my stretcher bearers, R.A.M.C., were good stuff, afraid of nothing, and kind-hearted, apologizing for any jolting. How they kept it up during that ghastly 10-kilometre journey is a mystery. I would rather go over the top than suffer that fatigue.[2]

 

Quigley’s curious and florid prose-style has been a welcome addition here, but many of the more experienced veterans are still professing their inability to describe the horrors of Passchendaele. (Will time tame his style?) Vera Brittain, for instance, waits at a mid-point in the lines of evacuation that begin with that German prisoner and those heroic stretcher-bearers:

24th General, France, 12 October 1917

Someday perhaps I will try to tell you what this first half of October has been like, for I cannot even attempt to describe it in a letter & of course we are still in the middle of things; the rush is by no means over yet–Three times this week we have taken in convoys & evacuated to England, & the fourth came into our ward all at the same time. Every day since this day last week has been one long doing of the impossible–or what seemed the impossible before you started. We have four of our twenty-five patients on the D.I.L. (dangerously ill list, which means their people can come over from England to see them) and any one of them would keep a nurse occupied all day but when there are only two of you for the whole lot you simply have to do the best you can. One does dressings from morning till night. I never knew anything approaching it in London, & certainly not in Malta. No one realises the meaning of emergencies who has not been in France. Nor does one know the meaning of ‘bad cases’ for they don’t get to England in the state we see them here; they either die in France or else wait to get better before they are evacuated…[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. R.P. Graves, Robert Graves, The Assault Heroic, 183-5.
  2. Passchendaele and the Somme, 147-53.
  3. Letters From a Lost Generation, 377-8.

Ivor Gurney’s Memory, After Music; Wilfred Owen Drafts a Masterpiece

Ivor Gurney has been writing letters nineteen to the dozen lately from a hospital near Edinburgh, and I promised that we would get caught up. His letters are all over the place–at some points nearly manic–and much of what he has to say he has already said, and recently. Gurney is cooped up in the hospital, dragooned into bashing out popular tunes for sing-songs, uncertain if the swallowed gas that landed him here is causing much real trouble, or that his mind isn’t

An undated letter to Marion Scott praises some of the personalities he has met since landing in the hospital, and strains to produce verse:

Damn the War!

…Last night I played Bach and Beethoven for two hours, and got a little into swing towards the end. That was good. I am too lazy to write, and besides nothing will come to me when I try to pump — the bilge pumps, I think, by the results.

Memory, let all slip

Memory, let all slip save what is sweet
Of Ypres plains.
Keep only autumn sunlight and the fleet
Cloud after rains.

Blue skies and mellow distance softly blue;
These only hold
Lest I shall share my panged grave with you.
Else dead. Else cold.

Needless to say, a failed ode to forgetting trauma is not the greatest indicator of good spirits. Another letter discusses minor tragedies–lost manuscripts–and the uplifting arrival of a chaplain “touched with greatness, supremely alive, warmblooded, interested, interesting, fine looking with eyes of humourous power.” (There is also a remarkable pen portrait of “a coalminer of Fife,” an autodidact and force of nature (“he had the Celtic temperament”) whose charisma invigorates Gurney.

They talk of the power of great music to move–but, with no little irony, Gurney’s powers to make lesser music now cause him to stay put.

I am likely to be here another fortnight, for on the colonel’s inspection I was one of the very few not marked Con: Camp. “Why?” “Accompaniments, my dear”. For once, I saw the Army winking its eye at me, and wunk back.

I really like “wunk back.” There are also polite interrogations of Scott and interminable discussions of grand strategy (it’s hard not to suspect that Scott wrote of these things to Gurney because she wanted to write about the war without writing about the experience of the trenches, and that Gurney wrote back in a similar spirit–to please her and to think about less-than-completely-traumatic things).

And there is a delightful discussion of soldiers’ slang and humor… But I will–I must!–cut it short, since we have a very big poem to get to.

…Hearing a few casual catchwords flying around, it struck me that you might like to know some of them — such as I can remember. Poor bare jests, almost too familiar to remember at will.

There is one (just heard for the thousandth time) which brings a picture of a tragic roll call. A man may be shouted for who is not present, and the room answers, “On the wire, at Loos”. A lighter answer, a mock of this last, is “Gassed at Mons”.

Amusing, you see, because although British casualties at Mons were extremely high, it was before gas was used…

A coming strafe means carrying parties, and they are greeted with “More iron rations for Fritz”…

And many similar expressions, plus the rather surprising assertion that “an officer always takes whisky into the line, and his being drunk on any critical occasion is always condoned.”

This we are meant to pass by with a shrug, it’s merely how things go, more or less. But Gurney’s letters do get on to a subject that will occupy us today, and, increasingly, for the rest of the war: namely, how the soldier goes on fighting when the experiential gulf that yawns between them and those at home is so well-defended with a box barrage of lies. Speaking of the typical Tommies of his acquaintance, Gurney writes that

Their faith in newspapers has been sorely shaken for ever by the comparison of accounts with realities. But chiefly by the contrast between the phrase “Mastery of the Air” and the reality. Parliament is a haunt of people who talk and dont care what happens to him and his like.

Today’s letter to Scott begins with a seriocomic rant against low-quality writing implements.

The man who would attempt to write verse with a pencil when a pen is handy and convenient to him would rob a church without more thought than he would give to the flicking of cigarette ash — which indeed is frequently the trick of the melodramatic villain. For the writing of music there can be none so foul of spirit as to contemplate aught but the pen as instrument…

Let us use ink whenever Fate and Supply allow us, for so we shall show ourselves cognisant of and grateful for the civilisation of Europe, that once again has survived onslaught of the barbarian; who showed himself nakedly to all when he would destroy a “scrap of paper”, and the work of pen and ink without a pang…

Gurney is hard to take in large doses, and he is sometimes minor, and sometimes something close to very great, a composer and a poet full of sound and fury:

 

After Music

Why, I am on fire now, and tremulous
With sense of Beauty long denied; the first
Opening of floodgate to the glorious burst
Of Freedom from the Fate that limits us
To work in darkness pining for the light,
Thirsting for sweet untainted draughts of air.
Clouds sunset coloured. Music . . . O Music’s bare
White heat of silver passion fiercely bright.
While sweating at the foul task, we can taste
No Joy that’s clean, no Love but something lets
It from its power, the wisest soul forgets
What’s beautiful, or delicate, or chaste.
Orpheus drew me, as once his bride, from Hell
If wisely, she or I, the Gods can tell.[1]

 

Gurney will continue to try to find ways of wrestling the truth of the war into a traditional poetic context–capitalized Beauty and Music, uneasily combined with images and memories of the trenches. But Wilfred Owen has taken a great leap forward, toward one of the greatest of the war’s poems, and one that, more than any other, succeeds in addressing–and riveting–the attention of the reader on the far side of the experiential gulf. Here he sets out to separate–emphatically, calmly, and unassailably–the combat soldier’s truth from the old lies of his “friends” far from the trenches.

At Craiglockhart, today, a century back, (and only a few miles, again, from where Gurney writes) Owen wrote a first draft of what will become Dulce et Decorum Est. I assume that everyone is familiar with this poem; but I’ll put it here nonetheless–its power certainly holds up…

 

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.
Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

 

Siegfried Sassoon will remark that he did not realize how terrible Owen’s few weeks on the line last winter were–but these verses would seem to hint strongly at just such an experience. (They also give the lie, as it were, to Gurney’s insistence that swallowing gas was no worse than a cold–although clearly Gurney had received a much lower dose.) And we must read carefully to notice that in between Owen’s cheerful, busy, haler-and-heartier-by-the-week days at Craiglockhart come terrible nights of “disastrous dreams”–dreams in which his helpless sight has been replaying these traumas.

So, you know–biography, experience. But also poetry: while many serious readers of Owen prefer his more subtle poems, this is still a remarkable achievement for a young man who was writing forgettable verse only months ago. (This is one of the least forgettable poems I know.) The task here is simple and direct, like the poem’s address: show what this is that has happened, and what it was like. Declare not some foolish overweening confidence in “what it all means,” but show what it proves cannot be true. This does the job with the efficiency and clarity of a mature poet.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Letters, 214-22.

Carroll Carstairs and Jack Martin are Witness to A Ghastly and Murderous Failure; Llewelyn Wyn Griffith Remembers a Very Successful Day

Carroll Carstairs has been moving up over the last few days–back “up” that perilous, horizontal ladder of railways and shelled roads, “corduroy” paths and communications trenches that leads from “rest” to battle.

There was no sleep for anyone. Through the long hours the nightmare persisted until at 5.40 a.m. the division on our right went over the top to the tune of the most mighty cannonade conceivable, and my life reached a peak of auricular experience. It was at last the whole world crashing about our ears. Gunfire had, at a moment, leaped into an intensity no human being could have realised without hearing. A veritable crescendo of sounds, so continuous as to merge and blend into a single annihilating roar, the roar of a train in a tunnel magnified a millionfold; only the rattle of the machine gun barrage, like clocks gone mad, ticking out the end of time in a final breathless reckoning, rose above it, while the accelerating blasts of enemy shells added weight to the crowning catastrophe. One imagined the very air ripped and torn by the flight of numberless shells, the very sky to have become a tattered blue garment.

I went to the entrance of our pill-box to see what I could of the battle and never was spectator so thrilled, so awed. Beyond the enemy lines, behind the high dust of battle, colour stole shamefacedly into the sky; the rising sun appeared, a blurred and murky mass. The light of another day crept chill and faint over a scene too desolate for further destruction. Great clouds of smoke and dirt spouted into the air and drifted like a dirty morning mist along the horizon line. Showers of sparks, made by incendiary shells, burst like monster fire crackers, while enemy rockets, signalling that the attack had begun, shot into the sky, breaking from red into green lights, like dragons’ eyes changing colour. Of troops I could see little. Specks too much the tone of the earth over which they were moving. For me the battle continued, a hurling and crashing of huge projectiles . . .

After a little, orderlies appeared coming back at the double, while soon after zero the sky was dotted with our contact aeroplanes. One came down in our lines.

The very day, made restless by its predecessors, gave us no peace, and shelling kept up, heavy as ever, while a tour of the Company’s front revealed the fact that it had escaped the terrible bombardment of the night with one man killed and a man “buried.”

All day the firing went on, until 6 p.m., when it turned again from scattered knocks into the prolonged, concerted bang of gun fire—attack or counter-attack? But one heard nothing and knew nothing except what was happening to one’s own Company—and not always much of that.

So Carstairs is unaware that another major phase of “Third Ypres” has opened up, known as “the Battle of the Menin Road Ridge.”

In the evening I was on trench duty. I sat with my back up against the end of the platoon slit, gazing at the blurred figure of the sentry or into a sky set with stats, hard and brilliant as precious stones. Fleecy clouds, like gauze, rubbed them to a brighter lustre. I spoke in an undertone to the sentry. I felt friendliness for him. I did not know his name—one of a hundred and fifty men—how long would he last? For the matter of that how long would I? But we were one now. Reacting identically. One through a common danger. Victims of the same caprice of fate. He watched out for me and if he gave the alarm, would I not act at once for him?

I smoked a cigarette. How life balanced! Here was a hundred per cent danger and discomfort, but here too was a hundred per cent pleasure out of a cigarette. Each puff was a brief, sweet intoxicant. A suggestion of past joys, drawn deep and fragrantly into the lungs and blown out into the crystal air.

Falling into a slight doze, I woke, feeling chilled. The darkness, like any night into the middle of which one woke, seemed everlasting.[1]

 

Sapper Jack Martin was only a few hundred yards behind this attack. He spent the day in the Brigade Signal Office, assembling “little bits of information.”

Putting them all together, the situation seems like this. Fritz had occupied some of the derelict tanks lying in no-man’s-land and had made strongpoints of them. He fought desperately and disputed every inch of ground and his snipers remained at their posts hidden in tree trunks etc, even after our troops had passed them, and continued to shoot our men from behind…

Martin reported that one battalion of the Hampshires lost every officer “and a great many men.” Strangely–or not, considering his position among a brigade staff–Martin’s heroes of the day are two Colonels, commanding battalions in the brigade. One of these captured–and chose not to kill–one of those German rearguard snipers, and another led the stout defense of a forward post even after being wounded..

A later entry on the same day confirms, however, that the attack has not gone as planned.

I expect that tomorrow the English papers will be shouting the news of a great victory, but it has been a ghastly and murderous failure.

…I was surprise to see some Military Police in these tunnels… Their business up here is to prowl round the tunnels looking for men who have taken shelter when they ought to be outside. A miserably ignoble trade![2]

 

So–was this was another miserable “balls up” which the staff will conceal and the papers lie about? It might seem that few fighting soldiers would disagree, but theirs are not the only opinions, the only memories–and it was a big attack, more bloody on some sectors than others. Three divisions formed the spearhead and many others were involved in supporting roles, and they were, from a strategic point of view, successful.

A new tactic–an innovation, once again of General Plumer, known as “bite and hold”–meant that after a relatively short advance the attacking troops dug in and prepared to meet counter-attacks. Instead of wrecking themselves against the deeper layers of the German trench system and being swept away when the counter-attack came, they could hold their new positions with prearranged artillery support. (This of course also meant that there would be no breakthrough–the dream of the queen breaking out into the enemy rear has been abandoned, but at least the pawn is being pushed forward without being annihilated).

And just as Carroll Carstairs can’t see much beyond his company, the staff can’t see the individuals who suffer and die to achieve a favorable overall result. Llewelyn Wyn Griffith, now a young officer on a divisional staff–no matter that he was a traumatized infantry officer as recently as last summer–will remember the day as a triumph:

I remember a very successful day on 20 September, when we captured all our objectives. Our casualties were slight and our men took 400 prisoners: I recall seeing a lot of them in cages. We were kept pretty busy, even though there were minimal counter-attacks and those there were, were smashed by our guns.[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Generation Missing, 103-6.
  2. Sapper Martin, 104-6.
  3. Up to Mametz and Beyond, 156.

Edmund Blunden: Joy and the Shadow; Siegfried Sassoon’s Quiet Walk Disturbed; Of J.R.R. Tolkien and Luthien; Vera and Edward Brittain Are Reunited; Henry Williamson’s Mule Driving Plans Fall Through

June will be another month in which the British experience centers on one enormous offensive effort, this time at Messines, in the Ypres salient. Edmund Blunden, describing the period of rest and training his battalion is now undergoing, sets the tone by looking back–and thence, forward.

Yet more training, more countryside soldiering was allotted to the battalion when I had rejoined it; there was a merry round of work and pleasure at Houlle in the marsh by St. Omer, one of the battalion’s best times… we now had a week or two of camp life, some in tents, some in brewery warehouses, some in fine bedrooms, all in high summer. The great ponds and canals were a delight after the day’s strenuous business, which began often before dawn. Having attacked and trenched and reinforced and counter-attacked through the yellowing corn, and discussed this manoeuvre, that quarry, that cross-road until the afternoon, we came into the splendid silences of evening with intense joy.

“The picture taken that day” in May or June, 1917, of five Royal Sussex Officers and Old Blues of Christ’s Hospital: standing are W. J. Collyer, H. Amon, and E.W. Tice; Sitting are A.G. Vidler and Blunden.

It was during this rest that Vidler, Amon, Collyer, Tice, and myself, all of Christ’s Hospital, went together into St. Omer, and roamed the streets, the cathedral, and the shops with such exhilarations of wit and irony that we felt no other feast like this could ever come again; nor was the feeling wrong.

The picture taken that day is by me now; the vine winds over the white wall, a happy emblem of our occasion; and the five of us, all young and with an expression of subdued resoluteness and direct action, are looking on the world together. What do we care for your Three Musketeers? And after all, we know their very roads better than they did.

I recollect the battalion on the march through gray and pink boulevards and faubourgs, in misty morning dripping dew; and there was a night when we slept on doorsteps by the road; I recollect the enormous sidings at Hazebrouck station, and one more languid, unconversational, clumsy journey in the open trucks to Poperinghe, with ominous new shell holes in the fields alongside; but most of all, out of a deranged chronology and dimmed picture, I recollect the strange sight of red-rose-like fires on the eastward horizon at dusk, the conflagrations of incendiary shells tumbling into that ghat called Ypres with which we must now renew acquaintance.

 

 

Siegfried Sassoon–who will necessarily avoid the ugliness of Messines due to his wound (even if he were not building toward a disqualifying counter-attack of his own)–wrote today in strikingly similar terms of pastoral beauty and looming misery, but with very different style and effect. Blunden is all fiercely quiet foreboding for the coming sorrow, while Sassoon spends six lines stalking beauty only to will the rest of his non-sonnet into confrontation with ugliness and fear.

 

A Quiet Walk

He’d walked three miles along the sunken lane,
A warm breeze blowing through hawthorn-drifts
Of silver in the hedgerows, sunlit clouds
Moving aloft in level, slow processions.

And he’d seen nobody for over an hour,
But grazing sheep and birds among the gorse.

He all-but passed the thing; half-checked his stride,
And looked–old, ugly horrors crowding back.

A man was humped face downward in the grass,
With clutching hands, full-skirted grey-green, coat,
And something stiff and wrong about the legs.
He gripped his loathing quick . . . some hideous wound . . .
And then the stench. . . A stubbly-bearded tramp
Coughed, and rolled over and asked him for the time.

 

This is not prospective misery or even a leaping of contemporary distance to the deaths and wounds that are being meted out in France and Belgium–or perhaps it is that as well. But it should probably be read as, primarily, a visitation from the recent dead. The “tramp” seems to stand in for “Brock”/Brocklebank, the young officer whose death was described in Joe Cottrell’s recent letter to Sassoon.

But this is poetry, of course, and needn’t be simple or unambiguous… so we might treat it as pure poetry and remark only that Sassoon has skill, but lacks both the willing vision or the sure touch of Edward Thomas. He can write a reverent country-ramble poem with a subtext of unease, but instead of a tense, complex calm the horror comes crashing through to the surface…

But no; biographical fallacy aside, this is surely a poem about Sassoon’s current experience. He is even now wandering the sunken, hawthorn-strewn lanes of Sussex, and finding himself unable to think of anything but the war, and its horrors, and the mute question these dead men might pose to comfortable lane-strollers…

 

Not everyone dwells on the war, however, and some men have their hearts in England, and not with the old battalion, and their minds as much as possible on the literary hopes of après la guerre… So from beauty to horror we return to beauty, with a very rare excuse to see biography in the writing of John Ronald Tolkien.

Tolkien was “boarded” again today, a century back, near his current garrison post in Yorkshire. For the first time since falling ill with trench fever on the Somme he was declared “fit for general service,” but he was ordered to remain with his current unit at Thirtle Bridge for the time being. This was especially welcome news since Edith, his wife, had come to live at Roos to be near him, and they were able to spend a good deal of time together.

Some day soon–this spring or early summer–they will walk together “in a small woodland glade filled with hemlocks,” and Edith, “her hair… raven, her skin clear, her eyes brighter than you have seen them,” will sing and dance for her young husband. Later, John Ronald will transpose this scene to Middle Earth, writing of a careworn human warrior fleeing from trauma and coming upon an immortal elf-maiden, the most beautiful being who ever lived, singing and dancing in a forest glade. These are Beren and Luthien, central figures in the mythos that he is only now beginning to flesh out–and the only two whose names he will assign to people of this world.

When Beren first saw Luthien,

Blue was her raiment as the unclouded heaven, but her eyes were grey as the starlit evening; her mantle was sewn with golden flowers, but her hair was dark as the shadows of twilight.

Appropriately enough for the feminine ideal vision of a poetic young man of Tolkien’s generation, Luthien will be likened to a nightingale, and her singing to lark song…[1]

 

Another central tale of Tolkien’s Silmarillion will draw not on his own experience but on Finnish ballad traditions for the tragic story of a fate-tormented brother and sister… but this is to contrive a segue to our last two updates of today, which each involve a brother and a sister and pseudo-romantic entanglements…

 

Vera Brittain has been home from Malta for only a few days, and today, a century back, her brother Edward took a weekend leave from his work as a training camp officer and came to London. The two siblings, very close, haven’t seen each other for the better part of a year. But it was not a good visit.

When he did come he was an unfamiliar, frightening Edward, who never smiled nor spoke except about trivial things, who seemed to have nothing to say to me and indeed hardly appeared to notice my return. More than his first weeks in the trenches, more even than the Battle of the Somme, the death of Geoffrey and the blinding of Victor had chanced him. Silent, uncommunicative, thrust in upon himself, he sat all day at the piano, improvising plaintive melodies, and playing Elgar’s ‘Lament for the Fallen.’[2]

 

Henry Williamson provides bathos, then, in the conclusion to an odd scheme of his own as well as to this wandering first post of June. Last month he had hatched a plan to involve his sister in correspondence with a lonely soldier of his transport section. Why? It’s not clear, but it’s not working out…

Dear Biddy,

Thanks for your note. No, dont send any more parcels to Bevan. He didn’t write the letter–I was away when the letter was written but I should imagine the Sergt composed the answer in order to impress one I suppose what a genteel fellow he was… Bevan wont write or read or do anything–he is quite a mule.[3]

(I refer the careful reader to my recent speculations about the literal or figurative status of the “mule” who kicked Williamson in the head.)

But Williamson has recently parted ways with his alter ego Phillip Maddison. Behind the lines of what will shortly be the Battle of Messines, Phillip has conceived the idea of delivering a lecture on the coming attack. This is highly improbable, but it provides the reader of the novel with useful tactical and operational plot exposition for the coming battle. The lecture, however, is not a success–despite Phillip providing the men with a snack by way of buying their good will. It’s described in the novel in a fictional diary entry of tomorrow, a century back, but seems to have taken place “today.”

Gave a lecture, felt feeble. Contrast today with old days, Loos, etc. Nothing left to chance this time… Everything is foreseen… the bones of Loos have become chalk, the Somme dead are soil again: their sacrifices were not all in vain. Almost the fear of death is overcome, certainly depression… Even so, I am still a stranger in this land of 1914, which haunts me.[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. See Chronology, 101.
  2. Testament of Youth, 357.
  3. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 158-9.
  4. Love and the Loveless, 146.

Alfred Hale’s Indignity and Despair; A Probable Whopper from Henry Williamson; Duff Cooper and FOMO; Rowland Feilding En Famille; A Bad Dream for Siegfried Sassoon, but Thomas Hardy Doubles Down

Alfred Hale‘s first day in his new job as an RFC batman was… not good. But whether a say like this reads as unmitigated disaster or bitter farce has much to do with how much time has elapsed before one comes to contemplate it.

Hale has been assigned to look after the comforts of officers, and yet, even though he feels his own toilet to be essential both to his sense of well-being and his self-worth, he is incapable even of shaving himself. There are no barbers to be found, and his safety razor has been stolen. Hence this scene of military bathos:

The more I dipped my razor in the collapsible cup, the more it acted up to its name, till I had hard work to keep what little water I could in its bottom portion, so to speak. And my face? Well, the more I tried to get my beard off, the more my chin bled, till I was forced to stop. Yes, that army razor could cut fast enough, and no mistake…

Further humiliation awaited on the parade ground. Hale did not yet know that, as a batman, he could skip morning drill, during which both his incompetence and his butchered face drew the attention of the NCO in charge. And it got worse. Hale was then interviewed by a Captain Ross, and Hale–too bitter and focused a writer to refrain from shriving himself even as he is ground down by an antagonist–bungles it.

I was asked if I had ever been anything in the shape of a domestic servant, and on my replying in the negative, was told off to be a batman. But that was not before I had made an utter ass of myself by whining out that I had had a Public School education, and would like something clerical to do. This very foolish remark brought down on me a withering look from Ross, and I subsequently came to the conclusion that I had far better have stood silently on my dignity, without a word, and thrown the whole responsibility involved in giving me unsuitable work to do on Ross and those in authority behind him…

But standing on my dignity alas, was the last thing I was capable of that morning…

If all this occurred on the Sunday morning, 20 May, it was little wonder that I was well-night abandoning myself to despair that evening out for a walk at the crossroads, and when leaning over the gate leading into the wood, and that it seemed about the limit of things when I was met on my return to camp by Bailey and Lloyd and accused of staying out too long..

Hale’s first description of this despairing walk, given before a full accounting of the morning’s humiliations, sounds even worse: “I had some pretty bad moments, needing all the philosophical courage I could muster to overcome them.” Is this a self-pitying and melodramatic account of desperation and misery, or is Hale telling us that he was nearly suicidal?[1]

 

Henry Williamson is an irresistible point of comparison, since so much is so different about the two men and yet this central dynamic of misfitting, embarrassment, and intense writing of their own humiliations is so similar. Williamson is, for all his three years in the military, still so young, while Hale seems much older than his forty-two years. Williamson’s social background is quite humble for an officer while Hale is extremely unusual in being a Public School enlisted man (the days of the Public Schools Battalion being long gone)–the world is turned upside down.

Then there is the sharp difference in personality: Williamson the impulsive clown, full of bluster and manic energy, while Hale is steady but so inward that he must seem irretrievably obtuse. They will never fit in; they will constantly put their feet in it. And they will write about it in shame and wonder…

One thing does separate them, though, in a temporary rather than an absolute way. Hale is an innocent while Williamson is an experienced army man. He saw a good deal of combat, in 1914 and 1915, but he has lately managed the system very well. Through illness, promotion, retraining, and transport work, Williamson has strung together several years out of the actual trenches. And this string of excerpts from different letters shows his proudly practical approach to his own war service:

18 May

Dear Mother, Am awfully tired… last night we ran into a barrage of tear and phosgene shells… my eyes are very painful and for the moment Im fed up…

19 May

…Well this is my fourth month and not a sign of leave yet–oh my hat I am bored stiff–I love the life (except the strafes of course)… Thank God I’m a transport officer & dont go up again to the awful slaughter they call our front line–with the Bosche grinning 1000 yds away…

20 May

Am going down the line a bit for 5 weeks to do a Signalling Course–why I dont know–I am very fed up with losing my Transport job but don’t worry–they won’t get me in the infantry…

And then something very strange enters the letters. Given Williamson’s penchant for dishonesty and his inability to resist expanding upon his military exploits (good practice for his formal fictionalization of war experience, later on) we must assume that this is a very tall tale:

I have just returned from special duty in London.[2]

Huh? Why would a lieutenant commanding the transport section of a machine gun company near the front lines be sent all the way to London? Williamson will make another reference to going to the War Office, as if someone had made him a special courier of secret information. But this is extremely unlikely, especially since his diary shows no absence from France. If he really did go on “special duty” he would have to have been there and back in a day. Anne Williamson notes that there is no confirmation of this extraordinary fact, and it seems to seal the case that Henry Williamson doesn’t write anything else about such a trip other than the two bare mentions in the letters. About nearly everything else that happens he repeatedly brags, in his letters, or elaborates, in his fiction.

So Williamson must be making this up, presumably to obscure the real reason that he has been sent on a signalling course–and that reason, roughly, must be his superiors’ unhappiness with his incompetence as a transport officer, and perhaps also his strange and socially unacceptable behavior.

 

From two achingly awkward men, then, to one of the smoothest. But Duff Cooper, even as he uses his decision to join the army to dramatic effect in his relentlessly dramatic affair with Diana Manners, is not going to lie to himself (or his love, or his diary) about his motivations.

The following account is consistent with his private reasoning, and very believable: what makes a century back different from our own, in social terms, is not so much the power of the Fear Of Missing Out (a new acronym, but not a new phenomenon, as we will see) as its deadliness, particularly to the upper classes, who no longer do much dying for their country.

Tonight the same took place as last night… I confessed to her that I was really glad to join the army which made her cry–she was so white and darling and pathetic. I explained to her that it was no nonsense about dying for my country or beating the Germans that made me glad to join, but simply the feeling I have had for so long that I am missing something, the vague regret that one feels when not invited to a ball even though it be a ball that one hardly would have hoped to enjoy.[3]

 

Penultimately–Siegfried Sasson still awaits us in Sussex–we have Rowland Feilding among old friends. This has been a long war, and I had no memory of reading of Feilding’s time billeted with this particular French family. But there’s a link below, happily…

May 20, 1917 (Sunday). Coulomby.

The rest is already beginning to work marvels with the men, and although we have so far had only two days of it, the cheered-up look and the renewed freshness in the battalion is surprising to see.

We had a football match this afternoon, and won it: and this morning (Sunday) we had Church Parade in an orchard. I must say I felt very proud of the battalion. The men had all groomed themselves up like new pins. The mud of the trenches had entirely disappeared…

This afternoon I rode with Booth, my Adjutant, to Lumbres, and called on the Avots. About five seconds after I had rung the bell the door was opened by Madame Avot herself. She recognized me at once and gave me such a welcome. She called for her husband, and Jean (who used to follow me about on his bicycle), and the little girl. There was a rush along the passage as they all came bounding out to meet me. I might have been the head of the
house returning from the war. It was indeed most touching. The last time I had seen them was on that night when they all waited in the road to say good-bye as we marched past their gate on our way to Loos. Jean and his sister were small children then. To-day Jean is dressed like a man, and both he and Edith are as tall as myself…

I was skurried into the drawing-room. Madame Avot began asking me all sorts of questions—about you, and about the children. She remembered everything about all of you. We started in broken French. Then we got into broken English. She asked, “How is the cheeky one?’’—referring to a description I had once given her of A—— . I had forgotten the episode till she reminded me. I had tried to describe the three children, and incidentally had said that one of them was a cheeky little thing. She did not understand, and I searched for a word, but could not find any appropriate translation for the word “cheeky.” She has since then learned to use the word herself.

While we sat in the drawing-room the little—now big —girl (what a long time the war must have lasted for her
to have grown like this) handed round chocolates…

It all reminded me of that evening in August, 1915, when she did these same things, and her husband, whose English was very, very limited in those days, edged up to me and kept saying, “Am I not lucky to have such a wife?”

It’s not often that we hear Feilding mention his children, but who could resist, in the circumstances? And he is true to form here in bringing the subject back to the excellence of wives…

 

Siegfried Sassoon is having a fine old time, outwardly. At Chapelwood Manor, in Sussex, he is recovering from his shoulder wound in an atmosphere of privileged leisure.

All possible kindness had been showered on me, every opportunity was there for healthy contentment and mental relaxation, and the fine early summer weather made the place an earthly paradise. But somehow or other I had only achieved superficial felicity, for the contrast between this luxurious and delightful existence and my lurid experiences on the Arras battlefield had been with me all the time. My mind dwelt continually on the battalion with which had been serving. Since I left it, ten officers had been killed and fourteen wounded. It wasn’t surprising that this undermined my complacency about my own good fortune…[4]

That would be Sassoon looking back, and the retrospective balance is salutary. But here is how it felt in the moment, today, a century back:

May 20

When I woke early this morning to hear the bird-voices, so rich and shrill in the grey misty dawn, piping hoarse and sweet from the quiet fragrance of the wet garden and from the green dripping, woods far off—lying in my clean white bed, drowsy and contented, I suddenly remembered ‘At zero the infantry will attack’—Operation Orders! Men were attacking while I lay in bed and listened to the heavenly choruses of birds. Men were blundering about in a looming twilight of hell lit by livid flashes of guns and hideous with the malignant invective of machine-gun fire. Men were dying, fifty yards from their trench—failing to reach the objective—held up.

And to-night the rain is hushing the darkness, steady, whispering rain—the voice of peace among summer foliage. And men are cursing the downpour that drenches and chills them, while the guns roar out their challenge.[5]

This is a man who is not a peace with himself. And why should he be, with the war going on? And what should he do?

Well, he should write. A letter from a literary hero is on its way to Sassoon, with praise that may either confirm him in his sense that it is his duty to satirize the war with as sharp a pen as possible, or, cross-grained as he is, may prod him to write something more, something different. And lest we think that Thomas Hardy‘s praise of Sassoon’s verse was merely politesse or kindness to an old friend’s nephew, he mentions Sassoon in passing in a letter of today to another old friend, Florence Henniker.

Max Gate, May 20, 1917

My dear Friend:

…People are in strangely irritable moods I fancy. I said very harmlessly in a poem (sonnet) entitled “The Pity of It” that the Germans were a “kin folk, kin tongued” (which is indisputable) & letters attacking me appeared, denying it! The fact of their being our enemies does not alter their race…

The young poets you allude to—I imagine you mean the “Georgians” (an absurd name, as if the Georgians were not Shelley Scott, Byron, &c.)—are I think or some of them, on a wrong track. They seem to forget that poetry must have symmetry in its form, & meaning in its content.

I have read young Sassoon’s book dedicated to me. I think the poems show much promise…

Always yrs affectionately
Th: H.[6]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The Ordeal of Alfred Hale, 64-9.
  2. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 153-4.
  3. The Duff Cooper Diaries, 53.
  4. Siegfried's Journey, 48.
  5. Diaries, 170-1.
  6. The Letters of Thomas Hardy, V, 214-5.

Siegfried Sassoon is Blighty Bound… and Eighteen Other Updates

Although I am almost as tired of writing extremely long posts as you are of reading them, so very many of our writers committed some sort of date-fixable act today, a century back, that I thought I should nod to the fates and survey everyone who showed up.[1]

After we wrap up with Siegfried Sassoon, withdrawn from the Hindenburg trench to the Hindenburg tunnel with a new “patriotic perforation” in his shoulder, and after we read the progress of Edward Hermon‘s widow, I will try to be judiciously brief with the others. Somehow, yesterday, Sassoon was not only seen and treated by the battalion Medical Officer, but was swiftly evacuated to a Casualty Clearing Station. Within hours of being held back from an attempted one-man bombing war, he is tucked in and headed for Blighty.

April 17

After a blessed eight hours’ sleep (more than I’d had since last Wednesday) I waited till 5 o’clock reading Far from the Madding Crowd, when we got on board a Red Cross train of serpentine length. Five hundred men and thirty-two officers on board. Warlencourt is eighteen kilometres from Arras—quite near Saulty, where we stayed on April 7. We passed through Doullens about 6 p.m. and Abbeville at 8.30 and reached Camiferes at midnight.

An officer called Kerr is with me—one of the First Cameronians. He was hit in the bombing show about an hour before I got up there on Monday morning, so I’ve got some sidelights on what really happened.

At present I am still feeling warlike, and quite prepared to go back to the line in a few weeks. My wound is fairly comfortable, and will be healed in a fortnight, they say. I know it would be best for me not to go back to England, where I should probably be landed for at least three months, and return to the line in July or August, with all the hell and wrench of coming back and settling down to be gone through again. I think I’ve established a very strong position in the Second Battalion in the five weeks I was with them. My luck never deserts me; it seems inevitable
for me to be cast for the part of ‘leading hero!’

Things to remember

The dull red rainy dawn on Sunday April 15, when we had relieved the 15th Northumberland Fusiliers—our Company of eighty men taking over a frontage of nine hundred yards.

During the relief—stumbling along the trench in the dusk, dead men and living lying against the sides of the trench one never knew which were dead and which living. Dead and living were very nearly one, for death was in all our hearts. Kirkby shaking dead German[2] by the shoulder to ask him the way.

On April 14 the 19th Brigade attacked at 5.30 a.m. I looked across at the hill where a round red sun was coming up. The hill was deeply shadowed and grey-blue, and all the Country was full of shell-flashes and drifting smoke. A battle picture.

Scene in the Hénin Dressing Station. The two bad cases—abdomen (hopeless) and ankle. The pitiful parson. My walk with Mansfield.

Sergeant Baldwin (A. Company) his impassive demeanour—like a well-trained footman. ‘My officer’s been hit.’ He bound up my wound.[3]

As these notes suggest, there will be a good deal more to write about all this.

 

A few days after learning of her husband’s death, Ethel Hermon received the heartfelt letter from his long-time manservant Gordon Buxton.

Dear Buxton,

Your letter came this morning & I can never thank you enough for your loving care of him & your sympathy & prayers. I knew you would be heartbroken & that I should have all your sympathy as you probably knew as well as anyone could know how much we were to each other.

You will by now have had my other letter telling you that I have asked Gen. Trevor… to let you come home if it is possible as I simply long to talk to you… I seem to know all that pen & paper can tell, one just longs to talk to someone who was there…

I should leave it there, as we press on into this massively choral day. To summarize, Ethel also charges Buckin with seeing that her husband’s valuable and useful possessions are distributed to his friends, and that the items that had been personal, close to his body–“the old basin & cover & its contents”–be returned to her. She hopes, too, that he can care for her husband’s grave. Which he will do–and he will come home.

A British tank ditched in the German lines at Arras, IWM

Dear Mrs. Hermon,

I’m sending this note by Buxton who goes on leave today to report to you. He will bring the papers etc. found on your husband…

…a tank was caught up on the German front line… & the Boches were firing at it… there seems little doubt that one these rifle bullets hit your husband just below the heart… The medical officer tells me he thinks a big blood vessel below the heart was severed & that death was almost instantaneous.

Your husband’s horses are being sent to Div. Hd. Qrs with the groom…

I can only repeat how much I feel for you in your irreparable loss.

Yours very sincerely,

H.E. Trevor[4]

 

Kate Luard‘s parade of horrors (we’ve read but a little, lately) has abated, as the Arras push lags. So time for a stroll–and paperwork.

We have had a lull the last two days, and everybody has been off duty long enough to go for a walk in relays and pick Lent lilies, cowslips, and anemones…  I believe another stunt is expected tomorrow…

I got about 60 behind in Break-the-News letters the first few days of last week…[5]

 

Ivor Gurney, realizing perhaps that he is even more lucky to be wounded and out of it than he had thought, managed a post card today to Marion Scott:

Dear Friend: Still at the Base. No certain address. No certain tomorrow. No luck. No money. No damage to my arm, save a hole. Yet, had the boats been running, I might have got to Blighty…[6]

 

Let’s see: what else is happening with the Great War writers?

 

Christopher Wiseman arrived in Harrogate to visit John Ronald Tolkien, and to help him in compiling a memorial volume of their friend G.B. Smith’s work.[7]

 

In fiction, today is the key date in “The Colonel’s Shoes,” a curious supernatural shaggy-dog short story by Ford Madox Hueffer. It’s a tale told in retrospect that hinges on bitter, childish infighting among a few officers and plays out in the orderly room of their overworked battalion. Today, a century back, a vindictive captain writes up a Company-Sergeant-Major for perceived insubordination, and it will take a very, very minor miracle to set things right…[8]

 

And after the excitement of last night’s chaotic patrol, tonight’s action provided tension in a lower key for Alf Pollard and the H.A.C. Ordered to move forward under cover of darkness and entrench within 200 yards of the Germans, Pollard accidentally led his men all the way up to the German wire obstacles. But once again “Fritz was keeping a very bad watch” and Pollard and his men are able to withdraw to the proper distance and begin entrenching before they are discovered. Pollard being Pollard, he ascertains that the battalion on his left is in the wrong position and blusters back under fire to explain his prowess and sure grasp of the situation to the Brigadier, as well as the embarrassed colonel of that neighboring battalion…[9]

 

Rowland Feilding missed the first week of the battle, but it is now the lot of his battalion to hold trenches in the worst possible weather, and fight the same war of patrol and counter-patrol.

April 17, 1917. “‘Turnerstown Left” (Fierstraat Sector).

I think this year must be accursed. Never was a fouler day than to-day. After a wet night it is still raining this morning, and the wind is howling dismally, but overhead. There are points, after all, in being in a trench. The French seem to have made a spectacular re-entry into the arena yesterday, but they must have been greatly handicapped by the weather, like our men at Vimy.

Last night we captured two big Prussian Grenadiers (unwounded) on our wire. They were brought to my dugout at 2 a.m., looking frightened—with their hands still outstretched in the orthodox manner of the surrendered prisoner who desires to show that he is not armed; coated with mud; one bleeding from a tear from the wire; but neither seeming too unhappy. If one only knew German this would be the proper time to extract information. They are too scared to lie much. Later, when they find out how kindly is the British soldier, they become sly and independent.[10]

 

Llewelyn Wyn Griffith, whose harrowing summer was followed by a long spell of peaceful staff work, was sent back to his battalion today, a century back, taking over C Company of the 15th Royal Welch Fusiliers. We hear time and again how officers pine for their comrades and their men when they are sent off to safe billets and cushy staff positions–not so Griffith, who “set off despondently” to return to the hardships of the line.[11]

 

And with another Kitchener battalion of the Royal Welch, David Jones is also heading back toward the front.

On the 17th, in wind and sleet, they left for divisional reserve at Roussel Farm–the cold mud so deep that it took hours to pass through 400 yards of communication trench. They arrived at 3.30 a.m.[12]

 

Henry Williamson “wrote a lot of letters” today, including one to his mother enclosing a piece of army propaganda about German demoralization and one to his father describing the roar of the big naval guns, the sight of a British tanker driven mad by the gunfire concentrated on his tank, and the recent transaction of parcels: cake and bullseyes to Henry in France, and souvenirs–including “2 tin boxes of bombs, etc., and 3 lovely helmets… & a saw bayonet”–sent home.[13]

 

Vera Brittain remains too far from the front, and full of worry. To her brother Edward, today, a century back:

I have to keep on writing letters, because the vague bits of news from France that filter through to us make me so anxious to receive them. From the long list of names that appear in the telegrams there seems to be a vast battle going on along the whole of our front & the French one too, but it is very difficult to make out at all what is happening. Is Geoffrey anywhere in the Bapaume direction? The longer the War goes on, the more one’s concern in the whole immense business seems to centre itself upon the few beings still left that one cares about, & the less upon the general issue of the struggle. One’s personal interest wears one’s patriotism rather threadbare by this time. After all, it is a garment one has had to wear for a very long time, so there’s not much wonder if it is beginning to get a little shabby![14]

Looking back on this night, she will add these thoughts:

Yet another night’s red moon, I thought, looking up after finishing Edward’s letter at the ominous glow in the unquiet sky. Another night, and still no news. Is Victor still alive? Is Geoffrey? Oh, God–it’s intolerable to be out here, knowing nothing till ages afterwards, but just wondering and wondering what has happened![15]

 

Jack Martin, in billets at Dickebusch, took today to write out fairly lengthy pen-portraits of some of his comrades… but I’m only human…[16]

 

Vivian de Sola Pinto, working for weeks now at the Bull Ring near Rouen, records today’s date–I would guess a scrap of his orders was preserved, for there are few dates and few such specifics in his book–as the occasion of a “huge fatigue party” that spent the entire day loading lorries. But it was also a memorable occasion because the station from which he was to supervise the loading contained a sergeant and two classes of furniture: a comfy chair and a biscuit tin.

With wry approval de Sola Pinto notes the sergeant’s insistence–“a fine example of what I would call a manly spirit of volunteer subordination”–that the officer take the better chair, despite the fact that both of them “knew he was an infinitely better soldier than I should ever be.” de Sola Pinto insists on taking turns, but recognizes that the Sergeant’s principled, if nominal, subordination “actually enhanced” his dignity.[17]

 

George Coppard, recovered from the accidental shooting in the foot, arrived today at “Camiers, a reception base for drafts.”[18]

 

C.E. Montague wrote both a letter and a diary entry recording his view of the battle from close behind. Wise though he is, he still feels bereft that his old companions are in battle and he is not. And he shows what a man with the time for literary composition on his hands can do. This is a good mix of eyewitness reportage and refined “battle-piece” history.

April 17, 1917

…Behold me again in the midst of our long-drawn battles—-meet incidents of our long-drawn war.

I saw the beginning of this one, before daylight on the morning of the 9th, from a little height above our front, from which I could see all our guns flash off together at the second of starting, like a beaded line of electric lights all turned on from one switch, and then each of them turned on and off and on again as fast as possible by a switch of its own. At intervals beyond this line of flashes there were the big geysers of flame, and dark objects visible in the middle of it, spouting up from our mines under the German front trench; and then at every two or three hundred yards there went up signal rockets from the German trenches, that seemed like visible shrieks to their artillery and supports to protect them from our infantry, who, they knew, were then on their way across from our trenches. I could see all this going on along several miles of front, and it was strangely dramatic, though all expressed through lights in the darkness alone, until the day broke and we could see our infantry already beyond the second line of enemy trenches and sauntering across quietly to the third, with our barrage of smoke walking steadily in front of them like the pillar of smoke in the desert—only of course it cannot give complete safety; and now and then the line would have a gap made in it by a shell and would join up again across the gap, and go strolling, with the strange look of leisureliness that an infantry charge of the scientific kind has now, until the time comes to rush the last few yards and jump down into the enemy’s trench.

It is grievous to to think that my battalion has twice had this great moment since I left it last midsummer, and that I may never know any more thrilling contact with the enemy than mutual sniping and a little reconnoitring of ground between his trenches and ours. The only compensation, so far as it goes, is that I see much more of the war and of the front as a whole, and the battlefield of the moment in particular, than one sees when engaged in honest regimental labour.

And in his diary:

Miles and miles of our front begin to dance in the dark, with twinkling and shimmering flashes. Suggests a long keyboard on which notes of light are being swiftly played. Then, from points all along German front, signal red and white and green rockets go up. Also ‘golden rains’ of our liquid fire, and one or two mine volcanoes. Dawn breaks on this firework show. Then on to a huge earthwork, an outwork of Arras citadel and lie on safe side and look over with fieldglass. Our infantry visible advancing in successive waves to take the second German trench-line N.E. of
Arras. Disquieted flocks of rooks. Then to Divl. H.Q., to find good news.

 

Charles Carrington‘s writing is honest, balanced, and well-informed. But he generally takes pains to, as they say, accentuate the positive. His morale and that of his unit’s was generally good–they have not despaired, they are more grim and more devoted to each other when they have started, but they would not acknowledge any sea change in their motivations, etc. But some days–and some nights, like last night, a century back, as they pressed up through the wreckage of this second push at Arras–were enough to drive a man to madness, despair, and self-slaughter. Last night he huddled under trench mortars; today was worse.

…In the morning, when we advanced unopposed, I passed the corpse of a British sergeant, not of my regiment. He lay on his back holding a revolver in his hand, shot through the throat at such an angle that I wondered if it had been suicide. If I had been suicidally inclined that night would have driven me to it.[19]

 

Edwin Vaughan and his battalion have been following the attack as well, and he writes voluminously of these days. But given his sensitive nature and penchant for drama, I don’t think he would mind my making this the representative incident:

At the Epéhy crossroads, we found a huge cat squatting on the chest of a dead German, eating his face. It made us sick to see it, and I sent two men to chase it away. As they approached it sprang snarling at them, but they beat it down with their rifles and drove it into the ruined houses. Then we covered the body with a sack, and went on.[20]

 

But we’ll end in Britain, in safety, and in the boudoir, where Duff Cooper has also been engaged in dire combat. Patrick Shaw-Stewart has been called back to war, but Cooper’s worries about other adversaries have pushed him closer to total war. Or, at least, to warfare unbefitting a gentleman. During Diana Manners‘ temporary absence from their long house party in Scotland he had been “obliged”–this is four days ago, a century back–to take a bath in her room. Where he opened and read her locked diary.[21]

It was rather vile of me…

It was, and we’ll skip the justifications. Amazingly, Cooper is both moved by learning “how much she loved Raymond” and urged to take action against his living rivals for her affection, including one Wimborne and a Lt-Col. Wilson who, of course, is known as “Scatters.”

There is no reference to me in the diary that I could quarrel with but I do not think she loves me… I rose from the perusal of this intimate diary which I had no right to read, loving, liking, and admiring her more than before.

And somehow this added up to progress. Cooper confessed his deed and was not banished. In fact, by last night he was reading her pages of his diary, then listening in agony outside her door while she (scandalously) entertained “Scatters” in the wee hours of today, a century back, and then returning in before dawn to wake her up with recrimination.

She cried and reproached me bitterly with not trusting and spying on her. I felt in the wrong and implored forgiveness which only after long pleading she granted. Then we had a night of the most wild and perfect joy. The best perhaps we ever had.[22]

And somewhere, every dawn, some men attack, and many sighs are drained.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. This may be--I joke here, almost completely, and with full apology for trespassing on the sanctity of life-or-death experience "from my armchair" (three words which I omitted from the Memoirs yesterday; but the armchair was only one possible destiny, for Sassoon)--the centennial blogger equivalent of Sassoon's mood at the very end of his escapade, yesterday, a century back...
  2. See Sassoon's "The Rear Guard," at the bottom of that post.
  3. Diaries, 156-7.
  4. For Love and Courage, 355, 358.
  5. Unknown Warriors, 114.
  6. War Letters, 155.
  7. Chronicle, 100.
  8. War Prose, 159-69.
  9. Fire-Eater, 209-11.
  10. War Letters to a Wife, 168.
  11. Griffith, Up to Mametz and Beyond, 138.
  12. Dilworth, David Jones in the Great War, 153.
  13. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 119-20.
  14. Letters from a Lost Generation, 334-5.
  15. Testament of Youth, 339.
  16. Sapper Martin, 60-4.
  17. The City that Shone, 190.
  18. With a Machine Gun, 106.
  19. Soldier From the Wars Returning, 145.
  20. Some Desperate Glory, 95-6.
  21. What, I ask you, is the point of all of that fancy classical education if Cooper can pull up and manage some allusion to Actaeon, transformed into a deer and torn apart by his own hounds after seeing Artemis in the bath. Perhaps, as he considers leaving the Foreign Office for the Army, the vengeful hounds of his old hunting partners, become ravening ghosts, perhaps, are a bit too frightening to contemplate.
  22. Duff Cooper Diaries, 50-1.

Lady Feilding Consoles Mairi Chisholm; Rowland Feilding Prepares to Confer Blessings; Siegfried Sassoon in the Hindenburg Tunnel

Before we go down into the Hindenburg tunnel with Siegfried Sassoon, a brief update on our two far-flung Feilding cousins. Lady Dorothie Feilding remains on duty in Belgium (now a quiet sector of the line) and is a good object lesson, today, on how the expectations of even the most enterprising and fearless women remain very different than those of the men who go to war. She has been working as an ambulance driver since 1914, but–it’s true–she’s had many leaves. Some of these we can chalk up to privilege and her irregular situation. Others seem not so much given to her as taken in order to forestall any accusation of heartless abandonment: as an unmarried woman, her first duty is to console. So one long leave was spent at home after her brother was killed while another was spent accompanying her sister on a mission to retrieve her husband by means of a Swiss-facilitated prisoner exchange.

And now her friends need her support. We spent a little time with Elsie Knocker (now the Baroness T’Serclaes) and Mairi Chisholm in the early days of the war when they moved in precisely the same circles as Lady Feilding. They are still nearby, in the Cellar House which made their name (but the book doesn’t hold a candle to Lady Feilding’s letters):

April 15th

Mother dearest–

The world is a very sad place–I have just been spending today busy up at N which is active, but mostly on our part, & last night with Mairi Chisholm at P in the old cellar house where she is now. The Baroness was away & she was all alone poor kiddie & very unhappy as the boy she had just got engaged to, young Jack Petre,–our cousin in the RNAS [Royal Naval Air Service] was killed 2 days ago in his machine on the Somme. They were only engaged privately so don’t talk about it but I am so sorry for the poor little kid–she feels it dreadfully–all the more because she is a very quiet reserved little soul, & as charming as the Baroness is 3rd rate which is saying a lot.

I am dreadfully sorry about it, he was such a nice boy & had a brilliant career. His machine came down like a stone through engine trouble while flying over the aerodrome & he was killed at once…

Love from Diddles[1]

 

It was just yesterday that Kate Luard, on the Somme, noted how many airmen were coming down. And before we get to the Somme, I want to stop for one more paragraph in Flanders, where Rowland Feilding, like his cousin a Catholic, reports to his wife on a special gift to his battalion of the Connaught Rangers.

April 15, 1917 (Sunday).

Rossignol Estaminet (near Kemmel).

This morning (Sunday) the Chaplain has been going round the Companies, which are scattered, saying Mass, and speaking to the men about your miniature crucifixes. He explained all about these;—how you had arranged to have them blessed by the Pope, specially for this battalion; how Cardinal Bourne had brought them from Rome; and how, next Sunday, when we shall be back behind the trenches, we are to have a Parade Mass, when they will be distributed. And he said many nice things about you… We go back to the front line this afternoon.[2]

 

But our protagonist, for now, must be Sassoon. We left him, yesterday, exhausted but on the brink of action, as another battalion prepared to push the subterranean attack on the Hindenburg Line near Arras. So let’s take a step back and remind ourselves of the tactical situation. If the opening day of the battle of Arras was a great success, tactically, it has become a predictable and awful slog. Having penetrated the German lines, the British troops are now trying to hold their new gains, under-strength and able to resupply only over the devastated ground they’ve gained, while the Germans counter-attack with fresh troops from prepared defenses along direct lines. The Germans seem to be determined, however, not to leave their strongest new fortifications in British hands.

We have heard much of the Hindenburg line, but not yet seen much of this “truly wonderful piece of engineering.” Now we will see not only a portion of the line–two linked trench systems running on either side of a ridge near Arras–but of the tunnel underneath:

Beneath the support trench, at a depth of 40 feet, was a huge dug-out or tunnel some 6 feet 6 inches high, and said to be 2 miles long in this portion. It was fitted down the middle with tiers of bunks, and small living-rooms and store rooms opened off it…[3]

This is the only available field of valor for Siegfried Sassoon, second in command of B Company, 2nd Royal Welch, and temporary detached bombing officer. And the same goes, of course, for “George Sherston” of the Flintshire Fusiliers: let’s jog from diary and history into the vivid colors and tense emotions of fictionalized memoir. In doing so we will also step back a full day, picking up the narrative of last night, when the unit is first led into the tunnel system.

At a midnight halt the hill still loomed in front of us; the guides confessed that they had lost their way, and Leake decided to sit down and wait for day­light. (There were few things more uncomfortable in the life of an officer than to be walking in front of a party of men all of whom knew that he was leading them in the wrong direction.) With Leake’s permission I blundered experimen­tally into the gloom, fully expecting to lose both myself and the company. By a lucky accident, I soon fell headlong into a sunken road and found myself among a small party of sappers who could tell me where I was. It was a case of, “Please, can you tell me the way to the Hindenburg Trench?” Congratulating myself on my cleverness, I took one of the sappers back to poor benighted B Company, and we were led to our battalion rendezvous…

We were at the end of a journey which had begun twelve days before, when we started from Camp Thirteen. Stage by stage, we had marched to the life‑denying region which from far away had threatened us with the blink and growl of its bombardments.[4] Now we were groping and stumbling along a deep ditch to the place appointed for us in that zone of inhuman havoc. There must have been some hazy moonlight, for I remember the figures of men huddled against the sides of communication trenches; seeing them in some sort of ghastly glimmer—(was it, perhaps, the diffused whiteness of a sinking flare beyond the ridge?) I was doubtful whether they were asleep or dead, for the attitudes of many were like death, grotesque and distorted.

Here Sassoon–for it is the remembering mind that is front and center, not the lightly fictionalized character that is “seeing” these things by the uncertain light of the moon (or was it flares?)–breaks in to remind us what is at stake. Or, rather, what war literature of quality really is: something that can strive for truth but never reach it but still not betray it, while history (“it had been multiplied a millionfold,” below) tilts inevitably and asymptotically at impossible, revolving standards of certainty.[5]

But this is nothing new to write about, you will say; just a weary company, squeezing past dead or drowsing men while it sloshes and stumbles to a front line trench. Nevertheless, that night relief had its significance for me, though in human experience it had been multiplied a mil­lionfold. I, a single human being with my little stock of earthly experience in my head, was entering once again the veritable gloom and disaster of the thing called Armageddon. And I saw it then, as I see it now—a dreadful place, a place of hor­ror and desolation which no imagination could have invented. Also it was a place where a man of strong spirit might know himself utterly powerless against death and destruction, and yet stand up and defy gross darkness and stupefying shell fire, discovering in himself the invincible resistance of an animal or an insect, and an endurance which he might, in after days, forget or disbelieve.

Anyhow, there I was, leading that little procession of Flintshire Fusiliers, many of whom had never seen a front line trench before. At that juncture they asked no compensation for their efforts except a mug of hot tea. The tea would have been a miracle, and we didn’t get it till next morning, but there was some comfort in the fact that it wasn’t raining.

It was nearly four o’clock when we found ourselves in the Hindenburg Main Trench. After telling me to post the sentries, Leake disappeared down some stairs to the Tunnel. The company we were relieving had already departed, so there was no one to give me any infor­mation. At first I didn’t even know for certain that we were in the front line. The trench was a sort of gully: deep, wide, and unfinished looking. The sentries had to clamber up a bank of loose earth before they could see over the top. Our company was only about eighty strong and its sector was fully six hundred yards…

This would bring us up to the early morning of today, a century back.

Out in No Man’s Land there was no sign of any German activity. The only remarkable thing was the unbroken silence. I was in a sort of twilight, for there was a moony glimmer in the low‑clouded sky; but the unknown territory in front was dark, and I stared out at it like a man looking from the side of a ship. Returning to my own sector I met a runner with a verbal message from Battalion HQ. B Company’s front was to be thoroughly patrolled at once. Realizing the futility of sending any of my few spare men out on patrol (they’d been walking about for seven hours and were dead beat), I lost my temper, quietly and inward­ly. Shirley and Rees were nowhere to be seen, and it wouldn’t have been fair to send them out, inexperienced as they were. So I stumped along to our right‑flank post, told them to pass it along that a patrol was going out from right to left, and then started sulkily out for a solitary stroll in No Man’s Land. I felt more annoyed with Battalion Headquarters than with the enemy. There was no wire in front of the trench, which was, of course, constructed for people facing the other way. I counted my steps; two hundred steps straight ahead; then I began to walk the presumptive six hundred footsteps to the left. But it isn’t easy to count your steps in the dark among shell holes, and after a problematic four hundred I lost confidence in my automatic pistol, which I was grasping in my right‑hand breeches pocket. Here I am, I thought, alone out in this god forsaken bit of ground, with quite a good chance of bumping into a Boche strong‑post. Apparently there was only one reassuring action which I could perform; so I expressed my opinion of the war by relieving myself (for it must be remembered that there are other reliefs beside battalion reliefs). I insured my sense of direction by placing my pistol on the ground with its muzzle pointing the way I was going. Feeling less lonely and afraid, I finished my patrol without having met so much as a dead body, and regained the trench exactly opposite our left‑hand post after being huskily chal­lenged by an irresolute sentry, who, as I realized at the time, was the greatest danger I had encountered. It was now just beginning to be more daylight than darkness, and when I stumbled down a shaft to the underground trench, I left the sentries shivering under a red and rainy‑looking sky…

A laborious seven-hour trip to fetch ammunition eats up most of the day, which–together with the sleep deprivation he mentions–explains the tone of today’s diary entry:

Got back very wet and tired about 4.30…

Was immediately told I’d got to take command of a hundred bombers (the Battalion is only 270 strong!) to act as reserve for the First Cameronians in to-morrow’s attack. The Cameronians are to bomb down the two Hindenburg Lines, which they tried to do on Saturday and had rather a bad time. We may not be wanted. If we are it will be bloody work I know. I haven’t slept for more than an hour at a time since Tuesday night, but I am feeling pretty fit and cheery. I have seen the most ghastly sights since we came up here. The dead bodies lying about the trenches and in the open are beyond description—especially after the rain. (A lot of the Germans killed by our bombardment last week are awful.) Our shelling of the line—and subsequent bombing etc—has left a number of mangled Germans—they will haunt me till I die. And everywhere one sees the British Tommy in various states of dismemberment—most of them are shot through the head—so not so fearful as the shell-twisted Germans. Written at 9.30 sitting in the Hindenburg underground tunnel on Sunday night, fully expecting to get killed on Monday morning.[6]

This is a man torn between exhaustion and intense anxiety or anticipation. For once I think we can understand why the later account is more vivid and intense than the contemporary document. Elaborate memories will remain, “awful” images that will “haunt” him till he dies. Or, perhaps until these sense memories of revulsion too deep to be dealt with in a hurried diary entry–especially while all intellectual effort must be exerted to keep calm and perform in battle–can be written out, worked into literature.

So, although it is against the rules, I will concede my foreknowledge that Sassoon’s foreboding is incorrect: he will live to write tomorrow, and to re-write today.  The horrors had to be passed by, a century back; they had to be kept in the corner of the eye and stored in deep safe place in the mind. Afterwards, they force themselves back to the surface, and can be considered.

The unmitigated misery of that carrying party was a typical infantry experience of discomfort without actual danger. Even if the ground had been dry, the boxes would have been too heavy for most of the men; but we were lucky in one way: The wet weather was causing the artillery to spend an inactive Sunday. It was a yellow, corpselike day, more like November than April, and the landscape was desolate and treeless. What we were doing was quite unexceptional; millions of soldiers endured the same sort of thing and got badly shelled into the bargain. Nevertheless I can believe that my party, staggering and floundering under its loads, would have made an impressive pic­ture of “Despair.” The background, too, was appropriate. We were among the debris of the intense bombardment of ten days before, for we were passing along and across the Hindenburg Outpost Trench, with its belt of wire (fifty yards deep in places); here and there these rusty jungles had been flattened by tanks. The Outpost Trench was about two hundred yards from the Main Trench, which was now our front line. It had been solidly made, ten feet deep, with timbered firesteps, splayed sides, and timbered steps at intervals to front and rear and to machine‑gun emplacements. Now it was wrecked as though by earthquake and eruption. Concrete strong‑posts were smashed and tilted sideways; everywhere the chalky soil was pocked and pitted with huge shell holes; and wherever we looked the mangled effigies of the dead were our memento mori. Shell‑twisted and dismembered, the Germans maintained the violent attitudes in which they had died. The British had mostly been killed by bullets or bombs, so they looked more resigned. But I can remember a pair of hands (nationality unknown) which protruded from the soaked ashen soil like the roots of a tree turned upside down; one hand seemed to be pointing at the sky with an accus­ing gesture. Each time I passed that place, the protest of those fingers became more expressive of an appeal to God in defiance of those who made the war. Who made the war? I laughed hysterically as the thought passed through my mud‑stained mind. But I only laughed mentally, for my box of Stokes-gun ammunition left me no breath to spare for an angry guffaw. And the dead were the dead; this was no time to be pitying them or asking silly questions about their outraged lives. Such sights must be taken for granted, I thought, as I gasped and slithered and stumbled with my disconsolate crew. Floating on the surface of the flooded trench was the mask of a human face which had detached itself from the skull.[7]

 

And in verse:

The Rear-Guard

(Hindenburg Line, April 1917)

 

Groping along the tunnel, step by step,
He winked his prying torch with patching glare
From side to side, and sniffed the unwholesome air.

 

Tins, boxes, bottles, shapes and too vague to know;
A mirror smashed, the mattress from a bed;
And he, exploring fifty feet below
The rosy gloom of battle overhead.

 

Tripping, he grabbed the wall; saw someone lie
Humped at his feet, half-hidden by a rug.
And stooped to give the sleeper’s arm a tug.
“I’m looking for headquarters.” No reply.
“God blast your neck!” (For days he’d had no sleep.)
“Get up and guide me through this stinking place.”
Savage, he kicked a soft, unanswering heap,
And flashed his beam across the livid face
Terribly glaring up, whose eyes yet wore
Agony dying hard of ten days before;
And fists of fingers clutched a blackening wound.

 

Alone he staggered on until he found
Dawn’s ghost that filtered down a shafted stair
To the dazed, muttering creatures underground
Who hear the boom of shells in muffled sound.
At last, with sweat and horror in his hair,
He climbed through darkness to the twilight air,
Unloading hell behind him step by step.

 

Tomorrow, at last, Sassoon will go into action.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Lady Under Fire, 204-5.
  2. War Letters to a Wife, 167-8.
  3. Dunn, The War the Infantry Knew, 328-9.
  4. The draft, of this section, which we read yesterday, is much more vivid!
  5. Established, by not-an-irony-but-rather-a-historical-coincidence-rooted-in-common-assumptions-rooted-in-social-and-intellectual-history, by German scholars coming out of exactly the same 19th century rationalist milieu that gave us the Prussian General Staff and the Schlieffen Plan.
  6. Diaries, 154-5.
  7. Complete Memoirs, 430-5.

Ivor Gurney in Perforated Good Spirits; Spring Offensive: Wilfred Owen Goes Over the Top; Siegfried Sassoon on the Effect of the Bombardment; Billy Prior’s Attack

Today is a day of blood and gore and foreboding. But we’ll start with the good news.

Pretty good news, at least: Ivor Gurney is wounded, and thus safe. There is pain, yes, but it hasn’t bought the best of news–early hopes of Blighty have faded. Gurney informs Marion Scott of his condition in a letter posted today, a century back:

My Dear Friend: Well, I am wounded: but not badly; perhaps not badly enough; as although kind people told me it meant Blighty for me, yet here I am at Rouen marked “Tents”. I do not yet give up hopes, but very few boats have been running lately; none at all for some days; and the serious cases go first of course. It was during an attack on Good Friday night that a bullet hit me and went clean through the right arm must underneath the shoulder—the muscles opposite the biceps, to describe them more or less accurately. It hurt badly for half an hour, but now hurts not at all…  there is no real damage done to my arm, not enough to please me.

Alas! Alas! There are hardly any books here! And the life is made up of hanging about waiting to be shifted again. Now if I could find some real hard reading to do–something to distract my mind–all might be well; or if I had some MS and a few books of verse, I would turn out something in spite of the flatness of my mind. O well, hopes
are not yet gone…

Though this Spring is cold and unclement, I cannot keep out of mind what April has meant for me in past years — Minsterworth, Framilode, and his companionship. And my sick mind holds desperately on to such memories for Beauty’s sake; and the hope of Joy…

So, if I can send you an address, please send me some small books of verse, and Tolstoi’s Cossacks (Worlds Classics – Pocket Ed.) I wonder whether at last I might try Housmans “Shropshire Lad”?

I will write again in half a shake:

Your sincere friend Ivor Gurney

(I write with my perforated arm, so you see not much is wrong.)[1]

 

It could be much worse. Which Kate Luard can make too painfully clear:

Saturday night April 14th. I’ve never in my life seen so many aeroplanes or so many dead men or so many German prisoners; they are marched in hundreds down our road…

One Cockney boy with both arms smashed said to the Padre, ‘Sy a prayer for me, will yer? That would be nahce. Can’t yer confirm me?’ It’s the only time I’ve seen the Padre laugh. Then the boy offered to sing ‘Tooleroolerity, I want to go to Blighty–Blighty is the plice for me.’ And then he died.[2]

 

 

So. Now another strange non-convergence. Two of our poets who have been creeping toward the line come even closer today–one attacks while the other is on the edge of the action–while a third man who will come to occupy the same space as both of them, but who did not exist, suffered some portion of both of their experiences.

 

During the morning, Wilfred Owen and the 2nd Manchesters moved forward to their attack positions… and found that the staff work had been very bad indeed. First, there was a simple problem of time and distance: “It was realised by the battalion at the outset that it was impossible to cover the distance in artillery formation with the loads and paraphanalia [sic] that the private soldier is called upon to carry in the attack in the time given.” To make matters worse, the last 1,000 yards of the approach involved moving across the enemy’s front, and when the Manchesters appeared in view the Germans immediately placed a hurricane barrage on the ground to be covered. Nor did they know what they were attacking, or where the other British units in the area were. The C.O., Lt. Col. Luxmore, rode off to consult with brigade and came back at 12:20, ten minutes before the scheduled attack time, saving his battalion by ordering a postponement and a flank march to a different position.

But they still had to attack, and they still had to cross a hillside in full view of German-held St. Quentin just to reach the jumping-off point.

Though this barrage was straight in the middle of the Battalion, they moved forward through it as steadily as going on parade, each wave keeping its dressing and distance and every carrier retaining his load. By the Grace of God alone only 30 men were lost in this barrage.

This took long enough that the newly-agreed-upon assault time of 1:00 was also missed. It seems as if there had been no allowance made for the fact that this is not an assault from long-held trenches with reasonably secure telephone connections to the rear but rather an exploratory attack by a unit feeling its way through new country. If the stakes weren’t so high the image of the colonel galloping about in Napoleonic fashion as if he were his own dispatch rider would be comical.

In any event, his arrival was doubly providential, since someone needed to take tactical command on the spot and ignore whatever brigade-level plans remained. Since staying out in accurate artillery fire meant certain destruction and the German wire barriers did not seem too imposing, the Manchesters mounted a quick frontal assault on a German-held trench near their objective, through the barrage and long-range machine-gun fire. Reaching the trench, they found it to be abandoned. This was victory, of a sort, and the day’s work done, so they turned the position over to their relief and went briefly into reserve.[3]

Wilfred Owen was physically unscathed, but this was his first real attack, his first day in the open, under fire. His letter to his mother will strike a tone somewhere between exhilaration and disbelief:

Twice in one day we went over the top, gaining both our objectives. Our A Company led the Attack, and of course lost a certain number of men. I had some extraordinary escapes from shells & bullets. Fortunately there was no bayonet work, since the Hun ran before we got up to his trench. You will find mention of our fight in the Communique; the place happens to be the very village which Father named in his last letter![4] Never before has the Battalion encountered such intense shelling as rained on us as we advanced in the open.[5]

But neither the battalion diary–which is in fact quite detailed and emotional for such a document–nor the letter do much to make us feel what it must have been like to have been there. Marching about, with no cover; uncertain of directions, of objections, of intentions–uncertain of anything except the fact that there would be no safety until some indeterminate length of shell-harrowed, bullet-swept ground was crossed.

But Owen will write it another way, in his poem “Spring Offensive,” which closes with these stanzas:

So, soon they topped the hill, and raced together
Over an open stretch of herb and heather
Exposed. And instantly the whole sky burned
With fury against them; and soft sudden cups
Opened in thousands for their blood; and the green slopes
Chasmed and steepened sheer to infinite space.
Of them who running on that last high place
Leapt to swift unseen bullets, or went up
On the hot blast and fury of hell’s upsurge,
Or plunged and fell away past this world’s verge,
Some say God caught them even before they fell.
But what say such as from existence’ brink
Ventured but drave too swift to sink.
The few who rushed in the body to enter hell,
And there out-fiending all its fiends and flames
With superhuman inhumanities,
Long-famous glories, immemorial shames—
And crawling slowly back, have by degrees
Regained cool peaceful air in wonder—
Why speak they not of comrades that went under?

 

There are many facile ways to make this next transition: “As Owen’s experience opens out, as his poetry rises, Sassoon descends…” Or, perhaps: “While Owen does not deny God and heaven, he writes with biblical force and yet pointedly fails to confirm any solace or meaning to the day’s ‘inhumanities;’ meanwhile, Sassoon is becoming confirmed in his beliefs about where fault for slaughter lies.” That sort of thing. But even if we eschew easy parallels, there is a striking juxtaposition here. Siegfried Sassoon–who has been hoping for open battle, in which he knows he will either excel or be killed–will get instead a new experienced of compressed horror, and one that will push his angry poetry toward something even deeper and darker. Not above ground and into the great wide shell-swept open, but down underground, in the subterranean fastnesses of the Hindenburg line, where, safe from the shells, it will be grenade- and knife-work, and hell will be no Miltonic abstraction of fiends and flames but mappable terrain, still contested by the damned…

Tonight, a century back, Sassoon is still on the verge of this. His diary picks up late last night:

April 14

At 9 p.m. we started off to relieve the 15th Northumberland Fusiliers in Hindenburg support (Second R.W.F. being in support to the First Cameronians). It was only an hour’s walk, but our Northumberland Fusilier guides lost themselves and we didn’t arrive and complete the relief until 4 a.m. Luckily it was fine. I went to bed at 5 a.m., after patrolling our 900-yard front alone!—in a corridor of the underground communication-trench of the Hindenburg Line—a wonderful place. Got up at 9.30 after a miserable hour’s sleep—cold as hell—and started off at 10.45 with a fatigue-party, to carry up trench-mortar bombs from dump between St Martin-Cojeul and Croisilles. Got back very
wet and tired about 4.30. Rained all day—trenches like glue.

But in beginning to transmute the experience to memoir, Sassoon will bring a sense of helpless victimization–of abject horror–to the fore:

Stage by stage we had marched to this monstrous region of death and disaster. From afar it had threatened us with the blink and din of its bombardments. Now we groped and stumbled along a deep ditch to the place appointed for us in that zone of human havoc. The World War had got our insignificant little unit in its mouth; we were there to be munched, maimed or liberated.[6]

So not Milton–Dante. The great devil mouth churning, while little dead men run up and down the twisting trenches in his hide, hurling bombs at each other…

We will see what the morrow will bring. But this stay amidst the wreckage of the attack will yield some of the most viscerally upsetting and vividly “anti-war” of Sassoon’s poems. One example will do, I think:

 

The Effect

‘The effect of our bombardment was terrific.
One man told me he had never seen so many dead before.’
War Correspondent.

‘He’d never seen so many dead before.’
They sprawled in yellow daylight while he swore
And gasped and lugged his everlasting load
Of bombs along what once had been a road.
‘How peaceful are the dead.’
Who put that silly gag in some one’s head?

‘He’d never seen so many dead before.’
The lilting words danced up and down his brain,
While corpses jumped and capered in the rain.
No, no; he wouldn’t count them any more…
The dead have done with pain:
They’ve choked; they can’t come back to life again.

When Dick was killed last week he looked like that,
Flapping along the fire-step like a fish,
After the blazing crump had knocked him flat…
‘How many dead? As many as ever you wish.
Don’t count ’em; they’re too many.
Who’ll buy my nice fresh corpses, two a penny?’

 

So a Dante, but a Dante who has lost sight of Purgatory, and knows that Paradise is impossible. This shocking turn in Sassoon’s poetry on the very day of Owen’s first attack makes an uncannily good introduction for our next subject.

Sassoon, as his diary shows, was sleepless and agitated and keyed-up, but he was not yet shocked into losing his mental equilibrium. Owen has survived his first attack and is uncertain yet what meaning he can wring out of it, or what it has wrung out of him.

Which brings us to Lt. Prior. Billy Prior is, in the literary sense, real–more real to me, having read his story several times, and seen it enacted–than many historical figures. But he’s also fictional. He began life, I think it’s fair to say, as a “composite character” in Pat Barker’s Regeneration, a sort of stock figure of well-researched historical fiction, well-equipped with a 20th century panoply of trauma, neurosis, and defiant energy. But then he took on a life of his own. Regeneration is the sort of book that with great modesty and intelligence–two essential characteristics, along with compassion, that it shares with its (non-fictional) hero, Dr. William Rivers–would wave off such superlatives as “the best of its kind.” But it is–the trilogy is an incomparable fictional exploration of the psychological damage wrought by the war, and Billy Prior is the most compelling fictional Great War officer I can think of.[7]

But it’s early days, and he has not yet opened out into that full fictional life. Prior will be “shell-shocked” into both amnesia and temporary mutism, and the account of the battle (read the book!) that he provides for his therapist is stubbornly matter-of-fact. In fact–and very interestingly–Prior’s memories of today, a century back, draw heavily both on Owen’s first sharp experience of walking under shell fire “as steadily as going on parade” as well as on the sort of edge-of-madness clarity that Sassoon’s poetic voice summons. This is good historical fictional practice, of course, but there are lots of good accounts of such attacks (I’ve heard there’s a blog…) and it’s interesting that Prior’s trauma borrows in such a way from two “real life” figures whose paths will cross his own, in fiction.

I’ll include now a short excerpt from Regeneration: as it fades out one might either take up the novel itself or read once more Owen’s letter and his battalion’s history.

Prior dragged on the cigarette and, momentarily, closed his eyes. He looked a bit like the boys you saw on street corners in the East End. That same air of knowing the price of everything. Rivers drew the file towards him. ‘We left you in billets at Beauvois.’

‘Yes. We were there, oh, I think about four days and then we were rushed back into the line. We attacked the morning of the night we moved up.’

‘Date?’

‘April the 14th.’

Rivers looked up. It was unusual for Prior to be so accurate.

‘St. George’s Day. The CO toasted him in the mess. I remember because it was so bloody stupid.'[8]

‘You were in the casualty clearing station on the …’ He glanced at the file. ’23rd. So that leaves us with nine days unaccounted for.’

‘Yes, and I’m afraid I can’t help you with any of them.

‘Do you remember the attack?’

‘Yes. It was exactly like any other attack.’

Rivers waited…[9]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Letters, 153-5.
  2. Unknown Warriors, 113.
  3. War Diary, WO/2392/2, page 160 (of pdf).
  4. Fayet.
  5. Collected Letters, 452.
  6. Dunn, The War the Infantry Knew, 316.
  7. I'm not sure if Christopher Tietjens should count; George Sherston probably shouldn't...
  8. St. George's Day is usually April 23rd, not April 14th, and the calendrical complexities which move it later under certain conditions shouldn't have resulted in making it the 14th in 1917. I have a very limited understanding of the liturgical calendar, but this would seem to be a simple slip, occasioned perhaps by the fact that the next day Rivers mentions--the end of the total gap in Prior's life history--is the 23rd--unless I am simply misreading the fictional conversation? Is Prior playing some game with the dates, testing Rivers in some way? I don't think we are meant to subtly infer than his amnesia is feigned... In any event, it's fiction! And I'm very pleased to have an excuse to begin considering Regeneration, the most important (ah, superlatives) of the Great War novels written by later generations, before the time of its main action (all too infrequently dateable) this summer and autumn.
  9. Regeneration, 77.